Food Arts presents the September 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Rudi Sodamin, vice president of f&b services/corporate executive chef of Cunard Line, Ltd., New York City, for tenaciously bringing new meaning to distinguished, high-end cruise cuisine.
A chef’s life is never easy, but overseeing 15 restaurants on five ships (Queen Elizabeth 2, Vistafjord, Royal Viking Sun, and Sea Goddesses I and II) demands an unusual degree of talent, organizational ability, and, yes, audacity. But Austrian-born Sodamin has always relished a challenge.
Ten years ago, he brought radical changes to the QE2, Cunard’s flagship. At the time, the foodservice aboard the fabled liner was considered an anachronism, a throwback to the 1950s. White sauces and stodgy waiters ruled the waves. Not anymore. Nowadays, the food is as in touch with the times as any Manhattan restaurant. One factor behind the turnaround was Sodamin’s decision to hire more international chefs. He also put women in Cunard kitchens and dining rooms for the first time.
“My mother was a professional chef, and when I was the chef of the Vistafjord [before it belonged to Cunard], all my cooks were women and they never let me down,” he says. “So when I changed to Cunard, I wanted to bring in some women.” Today, about 35 percent of Cunard’s cooks and waitstaff are female.
A self-described workaholic, Sodamin, 38, got an early start on his career serving as an apprentice at the Kurhotel Heilbrunn in Bad Mittendorf, Austria, when he was just 14. Five years later, he moved to the U.S. to work as a stagiaire at Seattle’s Olympic (now The Four Seasons Olympic Hotel) and New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza hotels. He then returned to Europe, where he rounded out his education with stints at a number of hotels and restaurants in France, Switzerland, and Germany.
Sodamin, who now spends five months of the year on the waters, first tested his sea legs in 1982 working as first cook on Norwegian American Line’s Vistafjord. By the time Cunard bought the line two years later, he had already been promoted to executive chef—the youngest in the fleet (and the youngest person in his kitchen). In 1986, he was named corporate executive chef and staff vice president of all Cunard’s vessels, from the exclusive twin-sister Sea Goddesses to the QE2, which can hold up to 2,500 passengers. Two years ago, he ascended to the top job.
Though he presides over a department with a $35 million annual budget (enough to cover the cost of 24,000 meals a day, some 350 days a year) and is as fluent in business operations as and Harvard MBA, Sodamin has lost none of the sensibilities of a chef. For him, the bottom line is always quality and customer satisfaction, which is why, for example, he believes Cunard’s single-seating dining policy continues to be so important. That Sodamin is able to maintain his budget while offering the freshest produce, meat, and fish on every cruise, no matter how far-flung the itinerary, is due in large part to a program he himself helped develop: jet provisioning, which involves a worldwide, computer-linked network of suppliers that’s used to supplement the ships’ basic stock while at sea. For instance, if the Sea Goddess I is in the Seychelles and needs 50 pounds of tuna, the chef on board need only enter the item in his computer, which will generate the name of the closest supplier with the best price. From there, the order can be placed along with the method of pickup or deliver—usually by helicopter or boat.
A few years ago, Sodamin instituted a guest chef series which, among others, featured Sottha Khunn (Le Cirque 2000, NYC), Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys, San Francisco), and Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill, Bolo, and Mesa City, NYC) and was intended as much for the edification of his staff as for the pleasure of passengers on board. He sees his biggest challenge for the future in finding kitchen and dining room staffers who are committed to his same high gastronomic standards.
In April, Sodamin introduced an à la carte menu for the QE2, a first, he believes, for the cruise industry. In addition to its daily specials, Queens Grill now offers 20 appetizers and 20 entrées.
Sodamin has other innovations in mind, including a line of QE2 gourmet products that can be purchased on board or at supermarkets. He would also like to write another cookbook. His first two, The Cruise Ship Cookbook (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1989), and Luscious Foods (Hampton Publishers, Charleston, 1991), were both big sellers. In addition, he continues to keep and eye on Amadeus, a popular Viennese restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut, of which he is a founding partner. His other eye is presently scrutinizing Manhattan for a site for a similar venture. Full speed ahead.