Cooks have long been travelers, moving from royal court to papal conclave, and Austrian-born Max Beyer is a great example of this restless spirit. Although still in his 20s, he has been executive chef of the Viking River Cruises ship Heimdal for two years now: a seven-day-a week, 12-hour-a-day job. He heads the kitchen of a boat that sails the Rhône River from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, down to Avignon, capital of medieval popes.
Max began in the family restaurant in Linz in the valley of the river Danube. “It was simple cooking, schnitzel, roast pork, that kind of thing. Grandma baked plum cake and strudel at the weekend, and I always helped. In Austria, we all know the basic pastries; they form part of so many of our dishes.”
After leaving school, Max followed an apprenticeship of both school and practical work, ending in the kitchen of a 50-year-old star chef. “He had 35 years more experience than me,” says Max. “It was amazing what he knew.”
The secret to shopping
On the Heimdal, Max guides an 11-member kitchen staff in providing three meals a day and constant snacks for 180 guests. A more gastronomic route could hardly be imagined, but how do you transfer such specialties as the pink pralines and the “rosette” dried sausages of Lyon, or the candied apricots and oranges of Provence, or the goat cheeses of the nearby Loire valley to the tiny galley kitchen of a large river boat? “You must know how to shop,” says Max, and his round face beams.
“We’ll go to the market, we’ll see some good things,” he declares, and thus ensues a deeply gastronomic afternoon. This proves to be no ordinary expedition. Les Halles de Lyon de Paul Bocuse is a covered market renowned throughout France for its more than 50 retailers clustered in aisles beneath a soaring roof. Chef Bocuse, who is often known as “l’Empereur,” had much to do with its development in the heart of Lyon city. “These are all artisan producers,” explains Max. “Restaurateurs shop here, but local residents drop by to collect their supper too. Everyone enjoys the market.”
From pork to cheese stands
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Nearly half of the merchants specialize in pork — Lyon is one of the sausage capitals of France, and it features dozens, hundreds probably, of versions of air-dried “saucissons” of raw, ground pork. Max goes into conference with the seller, who is clearly a friend. Half a dozen varied firm, dry sausages are plucked from the overhanging racks. Max pinches them: “We want them firm, but not too dried out, either” he says. He takes a sniff: “These seem just right.” In the chilled case below are ranged pigs’ ears, sweetbreads, tripe, pigs’ tails. Max casts a wistful glance but this is not ship’s fare.
On to the cheese stand and another huddled discussion. No question about it, cheese is my favorite food, and this display of 50 or more different cheeses makes me sigh. I used to live in Burgundy, not far north of Lyon, and the cheese display makes me sigh nostalgic. “Let’s have some goat cheeses,” says Max. “Valençay is shaped like a pyramid, and the St. Maur has been rolled in vegetable ashes; they both taste different. Then there’s the blue Roquefort that everyone wants, though I personally would go for Fourme d’Ambert or perhaps Bleu d’Auvergne at half the price.” I nod in agreement.
Challenges and chocolate cake
Back on the ship, Max lugs his purchases to his miniscule galley. The restricted space is used day and night, organized following the classic guidelines established by Escoffier more than a century ago: saucier (who is also sous-chef), entremettier (vegetables and smaller side dishes such as soufflés and crêpes), garde-manger (salads and cold kitchen) and dishwashers — “they have my admiration,” comments Max. “We all help each other. Last week I was peeling asparagus with the rest of them.”
Cooking on a ship
I ask about the problems of cooking on the move. “Let’s call them challenges,” says Max. “Just this morning the water was cut off, so we cooked with bottled water.”
Cooking is just the beginning of Max’s responsibilities. He keeps in close touch with guests, touring the dining rooms at each meal and keeping an eye on service. He gives a cooking class too, whipping up a popular recipe for chocolate lava cake one afternoon. Some brisk work is involved, and Max proves to have the gift of the gab. “You know, my grandma used to use a hand whisk, but faster!”
Anne Willan’s trip on the Viking Heimdal was a gift from Viking River Cruises to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her marriage to Mark Cherniavsky.
Main photo: While on the move, executive chef Max Beyer of the Viking river boat Heimdal takes regular visits to local markets. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano