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Kathryn Kelly a fascinating study

Having been fortunate to have met some fascinating people on cruise ships, we sometime feel compelled to tell you their story in more than one installment.

Such is the case with Kathryn Kelly.

To passengers on Oceania ships Marina and the new Riviera, and to people in the parent company, she is simply Chef Kelly. Her story is being told here in two parts…today, how she came to play a part in the culinary world, and on Monday, why she does what she does, which is help passengers learn how to cook at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center.

Yes, on a ship.

That part of her story began when a friend, the eminent pastry chef Dieter Schorner — who brought creme brulée to America — said he had an interesting opportunity: Float around the world cooking. Herr Schorner also said he was too old (in his 80s) and that she — at 56 — should do it.

By then, Chef Kelly had paid some dues, or at least earned some credits.

"My whole life," says the lifelong entrepreneur, "I always wanted to be a chef. In my 40s, I had sold my third — and last — company [mergers and acquisitions]. I took six months off. I watched a lot of Bette Davis movies, I walked on the beach and I adopted a dog. Then I had a call from a headhunter who said there was a Fortune 500 company on the West Coast looking for a CEO, and would I be interested. I'd been idle long enough that I would take a look but the minute I put on that suit and pantyhose and headed for the airport, there was no way. I went back home."

Following the obvious phone call, she made another one.

To the CIA…and that's not what you think it is. The Culinary Institute of America.

"I asked if I was too old to come to school, and they said if you can keep up, do it," recalls Chef Kelly. "I was living in Florida. I went to New York for 21 months. I have two Masters and a Doctorate, and cooking school was a helluva lot harder than any of them. I was studying for exams at 50 years old and when I graduated, it was the happiest day of my life."

Her story was impressive enough for the Wall Street Journal to carry a piece about her this summer, as an example of somebody who had made a career change late in her business life, and done it by choice.

"You know the movie Up In The Air, with George Clooney?" she asks. "It made me sad, not because it was a sad movie, but because it was me. I'd been in all those airports. And I had a therapist who told me 'You need to give yourself permission to do what makes you happy.' I knew in two seconds what would make me happy, and what was the worst that could happen? If I get there and find I don't want to be a chef, I quit."

That led her to Oceania, and the job that won't quit.

Monday: Find out why

Carnival Imagination
3 nights
December 7, 2012
Miami (return): Nassau
Inside:  $149
Cost per day: $49

Many Faces of Riviera's Godmother

ON THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA — So how does a Greek girl from the Southern United States become the Godmother for life of a cruise ship that will visit, among other places, her ancestral home?

She becomes Cat Cora.

There is likely a whole segment of the population that doesn't know who Cat Cora is. That is changing with each extension of her brand. The latest one is becoming Godmother of the Oceania Riviera, which for a few weeks will be the newest cruise ship in the world. It will be a special cruise ship — mid-sized, upper deluxe and created for the love of food — for longer than that.

In other words, people who know the world of Cat Cora.

For those who do not, she is indeed the girl of Greek lineage who grew up in Mississippi learning how to cook from not just her mother but her father Spiro and her godfather, both of whom were southern restaurateurs. After achieving degrees in physiology and nutrition, she launched what was to become a spectacular career in the food industry.

First (and still only) female Iron Chef. A protege of the late Julia Child, who was even more famous. Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. On television, a Food Network regular for more than a decade and, most recently, as co-host of Around the World in 80 Plates, a reality TV show based on Amazing Race but for "foodies." Author of three best-selling cookbooks and a children's book to comfort kids and parents alike when travel takes them apart.

She apprenticed under three-star Michelin chefs from France, Georges Blanc and Roger Verge.

"I sent letters to ten three-star Michelin chefs — that's the highest ranking in the world — and told them I would work for free," she says. "I received eight rejection letters in a row. Then I had offers from both Georges Blanc and Roger Verge. I said yes to both. Can you believe a girl with a funny accent, a five-foot-two young chef from Mississippi, would even think that would work?"

Her credits also include her admirable founding of Chefs For Humanity.

"I was always taught to give back and this is my labor of live," says the 44-year-old mother of four. "There was no organization like Doctors Without Borders. We're only the only chef-driven organization that does this. We started after the tsunami in Indonesia seven years ago [and later fed  three to five thousand people a day after Hurricane Katrina] and today we continue to do not only domestic but global work, working with the World Food Program and a lot of other partners."

Her friendship with Julia Child was instrumental in what she would become.

"I really wanted to go because I wanted to be a great chef," says Cora. "If you have a passion for something, anything, the rest of it will come. I keep my feet planted. I remember why I started, for my love of food. After I got my college degree, I said: 'Now I'm going to pursue my first love.' People are eating healthier now. That brings my worlds together."

All of the accolades and credits led her to the Riviera. It is the newest Oceania property of a fleet linked to fine food in an industry that traditionally focuses on food. In its main concourse hangs her picture, for the traditional title that is part of virtually every cruise ship.

It's a title Cat Cora will wear for the life of the Riviera.

Celebrity Equinox
10 nights
June 22, 2012
Rome (return): Messina, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Santorini, Mykonos, Naples
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $90

Cruise Chefs-to-be in Royal Cook-off

For me, and for people who like being in the kitchen…this sounds like a dream job, if there is such a thing. One year on a cruise ship, with your best dish on the menu, with input on what goes onto the passengers’ plates, even some say in how the restaurant is arranged.

There is one problem…okay, maybe it’s just one of the problems: I didn’t graduate from The Culinary Institute of America.

Those who did now have a chance at my dream job. Royal Caribbean will reward one lucky (and talented) alumni member of the Institute, one of the premier culinary training grounds in the world, a one-year contract on the new Allure of the Seas. Rather than have an established “name” chef, the cruise line’s idea is to hire an up-and-comer (there’s another problem) to be the Chef de Cuisine of 150 Central Park, the signature restaurant aboard the Allure.

The Allure of the Seas Culinary Challenge is open for competition until next Sunday, June 20th. There’s no mention of how much the one-year contract pays.

Who cares?

Besides the CIA (the other CIA) credentials, chefs have to create an original  recipe, submit a video that details the actual preparation of their potentially award-winning dish, and “sell” themselves as the best contest entry.

Judges will select 10 semi-finalists. Their videos will be posted on the contest website, and all of us who wish we were them can vote for our favorite, from June 28 to July 11. Everyone who registers to vote will have a chance to win a trip for two on a ”preview sailing” of Allure of the Seas in November.

The five contestants with the highest number of votes, along with one “judges’ choice” entrant, will be invited to participate in a culinary challenge  at The Culinary Institute of America on August 5th-6th in New York.

Sorry I can’t be there.

That’s it, I’m done.

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