On April 23, 2018, our second day aboard the Carnival Sunshine, my friends and I skipped the dining room and attended the Chef’s Table – a private dining event offered to a limited number of people – up to 14 per night. Denise reserved our spots months in advance. The cost was an additional $75/person.
Let’s start with a quick breakdown of what that $75 includes:
- House wine
- Tour of the galley
- Hors d’oeuvres
- Demonstration of how to make the chocolate melting cake (and recipe to make it at home)
- Seven-course dinner, presented by the chefs
- In our case, we got a private magic show
- Group photo and souvenir menu
Our particular dining group only included 10 people: myself, my three friends, and three other couples. Denise informed the maitre d’ of our group’s dietary restrictions ahead of time: I am a pescetarian (I don’t eat meat, but I do eat seafood), and Kelly has severe food allergies (tree nuts, sesame). I don’t think any of our dining companions had any food issues. But the chefs modified the menu and made separate dishes for me and for Kelly depending on what was being served. It was incredibly thoughtful. I will try to note the modifications per course. Also, this was on formal night so we were all in our sparkly dresses (and a button-up for Jason).
When we all met up, we were given glasses of champagne and introduced to Executive Chef Sameer Shaikh. He was our guide and host throughout the meal. He gave us a little bit of background info about the ship’s kitchen staff and waitstaff, their hours, their responsibilities, and the quantity of food that is prepared each day. I didn’t write down the stats, but it was mindblowing.
We were then paraded through the packed dining room into the galley, which was ENORMOUS. There are so many rooms, with designated areas and specialized staff for each course or type of food: a seafood team, a pastry team, a salad team, etc. The waiters poured in to collect food for their patrons and were so wonderful and friendly. Throughout our tour, we were given some hors d’oeuvres. Let’s discuss those now:
Mango Sphere, Rosemary Biscuit. We thought it was an egg yolk, and we were wrong. It’s a little ball of mango puree atop a delicate biscuit. I messed up, as one would expect, and managed to explode the whole thing all over my dress. And this is why, for the rest of formal night, my hair was pulled over to one side. This was delicious and simple and fruity. A perfect way to start.
Salmon Tartar Cornets. These were little cones of salmon tartare topped with some kind of guac. Mine was actually chopped up fruit because they weren’t positive if I’d eat raw salmon (that was sweet of them to consider!) and Kelly’s was served sans sesame seeds. This was a beautiful presentation, and very tasty. Denise noted that this was her favorite starter of the night.
Beef Carpaccio on Air Pillow, Chocolate Bacon, Apple Ribbons. Jason was so pumped for this because he had never eaten raw beef. He was so adventurous on this trip. We were all so proud of him. My version was a beet carpaccio on the same air pillow, with a fried plantain instead of the bacon. I really enjoyed this.
Alright, so after the hors d’oeuvres and a narrative about the kitchen, we made our way through to the dessert section, where they had laid out all the ingredients to make the famous Chocolate Melting Cake, the absolute star of the dinner menu every night. I just loved this cake. I ordered it every night, and we ordered extras to eat in our beds later. It’s just a basic chocolate lava cake, but they use high-quality ingredients. Kelly was invited up to assist with the demonstration and got to wear a hat.
Alright, so then we headed back to our private dining room. There was a table set for all ten of us, plus a staging area for the chefs, who were plating our food as we sat. Then Chef Shaikh presented each course to us, telling us the ingredients, the preparation methods, and the background behind each dish. Wine was available the entire meal. Let’s break it down:
The first food presented to us was a plate of little brioches topped with blue cheese, served with little spoons of butter. This plate was shared with Kelly, who was sitting next to me, but honestly I could have eaten both of them myself. These were delightfully fluffy and a beautiful combination of sweet and savory.
Beet Blanket, Spiced Grape Tea. We were presented with little bowls of these cubes, which were an asparagus, cauliflower, and honey carrot tian wrapped in a beet “blanket,” accompanied by mache and lemon streusel. Once we had admired the lovely presentation, Chef Shaikh came around and poured a grape tea overtop, which added a whole new dimension to the dish.
Crab Stack with corn custard, polenta cracker, tangerine, and passion fruit “caviar.” So, let’s not kid ourselves – this was a crab cake. It was a very well-executed crab cake with fruity components, but it was a crab cake. I did really enjoy it. The passion fruit “caviar” was really neat, too. I always get excited when chefs make foods look like other foods.
Duck Textures with creamy quinoa, parmesan churros, olive “snow,” and port wine jus. There was also a little puff, some herby carrots, and a couple other unidentified sauces. Mine, obviously, was not duck – I had some pumpkin ravioli puffs that actually matched well with all the other flavors. I was obsessed with these parmesan churros, which were basically like little snappy breadsticks made of cheese. My sauces were made separately, without chicken stock, which was very relieving to me. I was so nervous. My friends said the duck was very good and not overly oily, as duck can be.
Bisque “Our Way” – Two Tomato, Three Basil, Crisped Brioche, and Garlic Chip. I’m not sure why the menu didn’t include maybe the most important part, which was the giant log of cream cheese in the middle of the bowl. We were first presented with the cream cheese, and then they came around and poured two types of tomato soup – golden and roma. We were then instructed to incorporate the cream into the rest of the soup. This, my friends, was very exciting to eat. Every bite was different, especially when you hit a garlic chip.
OK, at this point, the chefs needed a little break so we were personally entertained by the ship’s magician. Jason gets very overwhelmed by magic so we all got really into it and had a great time. I, being kind of an asshole skeptic, kept thinking I knew how he was doing the illusions. I was wrong most of the time. And then the food started again!
Sea Bass with Chorizo Crust, Fried Popcorn Pudding, Lemon Macaron, and Lobster Foam. My dish included the sea bass, but without the chorizo; Kelly’s had the chorizo but had a lemon meringue instead of a macaron (which is made with almond flour). The sea bass was perfectly cooked – silky, moist, flavorful. I really loved the fried popcorn pudding, as weird as it was.
Wagyu with Bone Marrow Souffle, Scallion and Garlic Panisse, and Gremolata Crisp. Instead of wagyu, I had a mushroom strudel. I recognize that wagyu is a highly-prized beef, but LET ME TELL YOU, my mushroom strudel wasn’t anything to balk at. It was GREAT. And all of my friends agreed that their bone marrow souffle was their favorite dish of the night.
For dessert, we each received several little mini-desserts: sea salt praline chocolate (oh good gosh, definitely like a Belgian praline, but so intense), raspberry mojito (like a mousse, probably my favorite), key lime cake, apricot vanilla gel, and citrus cream.
Look, guys. I am a big eater. I love food. I can eat forever. But even I was full after all of this. We all needed to go lay down afterward (but then we went back out to the casino). I know the $75 price tag is steep, but in my opinion, it was totally worth it. I’m so glad we were able to partake in this experience. Not only was the food great, but it gave me a totally different perspective on our dining room experience. If you are able to attend one of these, I highly recommend it.
Thanks, Chef Shaikh!