Come sail away

Photo: Sandra Nowlan

When Shawn McKerness was washing dishes at Keddy’s Motor Inn on the Bay Road, he probably never imagined he’d one day be a top chef on a luxury cruise ship.

Talent, determination and a sense of adventure spurred his journey, though. He started washing dishes at Keddy’s (now Best Western Chocolate Lake) at age 15.  “It was way too much work,” he told us as we sailed between Turkey and Greece on the newest, most luxurious Holland America cruise ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam. “I decided I’d rather be a chef.”

McKerness seized his chance one morning when the breakfast cook failed to appear for work: “What’s so hard about cooking an egg?” From that experience, he worked his way up to first cook at Keddy’s.

In 1993, McKerness got serious about cooking and enrolled in the culinary programme at NSCC, first on Bell Road, then the Akerley campus in Dartmouth. “I saw an article about Chef Stephen Huston and his culinary team at the Prince George Hotel,” he recalls. “I said I was going to work for him and I hounded him until he gave me a job. That’s what got me hooked on fine cuisine.”

Shawn apprenticed under Huston for several years and began winning regional and national culinary competitions. After working as a chef at the Citadel Hotel and Stayner’s Wharf, he became restless and sent out some resumés. He was thinking about a move to another restaurant in the city; he didn’t expect what came next.

“I was noticed by a headhunter for Holland American Cruise Line,” he says. “Although I’d never been out of Canada and my only sailing experience was the ferry from North Sydney to Newfoundland, this was the most intriguing offer and I jumped at the chance. That was in 2003 and I’ve been [with Holland American] ever since.”

Because of his experience with fine dining, Shawn was assigned to the Maasdam and its Pinnacle Grill, Holland American’s high-end alternate restaurant (with a location on each of its 14 premium ships). If you’re not a regular cruiser, you probably haven’t heard of Pinnacle, but it’s a big deal in the business.

Porthole Magazine picked Pinnacle as “the best alternative restaurant in the cruise industry” in 2009. “The Pinnacle Grill offers a level of elegant sophistication unmatched anywhere on the seven seas,” says editor-in-chief Bill Panoff.

Pacific Northwest style seafood and Sterling Silver beef are the menu highlights. “The Pinnacle Grill has fast become a favourite in the industry,” says Richard Meadows, executive vice-president with Holland American. “Although there are many alternative restaurants today, we have continued to ensure the quality of the Pinnacle Grill’s dining experience stands out.”

Now on the 2,100-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam, launched last July, McKerness runs the Pinnacle Grill and is responsible for the million dollar Culinary Arts Centre. It’s a large, well-equipped dedicated room for demonstrations and culinary lectures with guest chefs on a daily basis) and the unique Master Chef’s Dinners (a two- or three-hour food and wine extravaganza limited to 18 lucky guests).

The demonstrations are particularly popular with passengers. “I only had time for one class, which was taught by Pinnacle Grill Chef Shawn McKerness,” says one review on the Cruise Critic website. “It was fabulous… A waiter carried our masterpieces across the hall to the Pinancle, where we sat down with the chef, had wine and our lunch. He was as good at the socializing part, as well as the ‘teaching’ part.”

Holland American’s culinary reputation is what enticed McKerness from Halifax’s kitchens. “We certainly serve mass quantities of food,” he says. “But the emphasis throughout the ship is on quality and fresh ingredients. We work from scratch as much as possible and buy ingredients from trusted, local vendors as we cruise.”

While McKerness’s life is much different than it was in Halifax, it’s not the commitment to quality cuisine that’s changed—rather, it’s the always-in-motion nature of the industry. “It’s a lifestyle,” he says. “I really enjoy the travel. On this cruise I’ve visited Istanbul and several Greek islands. I guess I’ve also become a bit of a food snob. I love Chinese food in China, Turkish food in Turkey and Italian food in Italy. I’ve been blessed.”

On the other side of the equation, McKerness finds it hard to put down roots now. “It’s tough maintaining personal relationships,” he says. “I usually work four or five months straight and then have a couple of months off to visit my girlfriend or to see my mom in Halifax. I once had a nine-month contract including a world cruise and that was awesome. I was able to build a great relationship with our guests.”

Despite the downside, he unhesitat-ingly recommends the life to other up-and-coming chefs. “Definitely,” McKerness says. “For a single guy or gal that wants adventure, this is a great life. Pay is comparable with work on land and there are virtually no bills. Room and board are covered. I don’t have a house and I don’t have a car. I don’t even need a cell phone so I never have a phone bill.”

His favourite time on a cruise is when his ship sails by Chebucto Head and McNab’s Island looms ahead. “I’ve [sailed into Halifax] on quite a few occasions and it’s always exciting,” he says. “I get to bring family and friends aboard and show them around. It’s great fun, especially for the young ones. They look around and say, ‘Wow! Look at the size of this thing.’”

And like any good chef, McKerness relishes the chance to return to his culinary roots and reconnect with the chefs and cuisine that influenced him. “I’ll go to any place associated with Ray Bear,” he says. “He’s just great… I can’t wait to get to Mix on Salter Street.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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