Q&A with Chef David Shalleck: Discovering the Mediterranean Diet at Sea

Before joining Oldways, I spent a fair amount of time cooking on sailboats and experiencing (and experimenting with!) local flavors at each port of call.  Since I became all too familiar with the limitations of cooking real food in a galley, I was particularly excited to interview Chef David Shalleck, who spent several years cooking aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean. David has worked in the food business for over two decades, cooking in restaurants (and on ships!) from New York to San Francisco to Italy. He is the author of the culinary travel memoir, Mediterranean Summer, founder of VOLOCHEF®, a culinary production company, and is also an Oldways Culinary Advisor.

We caught up with David right after his most recent trip to the Mediterranean.  - Mallory


OLDWAYS:  We love to follow what you're doing, David. Can you give our readers a brief explanation of how you became interested in cooking, and where that passion has taken you?
DAVID: When I was in kindergarten, and home for lunch every day, Graham Kerr's “Galloping Gourmet” show was on television. I think that's what did it. The way he presented, how he cooked, the surprised audience members who were invited to dine with him at the end-- it was enough to attract a four year old-- I was hooked on that show!  But the travel and food market segments in the beginning of the show, where he'd set up the inspiration for that day's menu, seemed amazing, and my mother was always very supportive of all things foreign, especially Europe. I had no idea at the time, but later in life, it turned out I'd be spending some years abroad and in some cases, shopping for food in the same markets he did!

OLDWAYS: When and how did you first become interested in the Mediterranean Diet?
DAVID:  It became clear to me how the Mediterranean Diet is embedded in a lifestyle and mindset when I was living in France and Italy. No one mentioned it per se, it was-- and for the most part-- still is a way of being. But what really convinced me that the Mediterranean Diet is the RIGHT way to eat was when I returned after those years abroad. When I had my first physical not long after I came back, the doctor said my health was as good as that of someone many years younger! With so much variation in flavor, pride, and attitude when it comes to food among the countries of the Mediterranean rim, it's a topic that will never tire... and it will always be delicious! 

OLDWAYS: You're just back from teaching cooking on a cruise ship that is in the Mediterranean. Can you tell us about that, and how being there influenced your cooking style? 
DAVID: It was an outstanding experience and I am very grateful to have been chosen to be one of the faculty members. The cruise line that I work with has a beautiful kitchen classroom on board. But what makes the experience so interesting for the guests is that many of the class menus are based on regional flavors and ports of call, there are general topics of Mediterranean cooking, and shore excursions that include market trips and producer visits to set up that day's class. What really drives it home for me is that many of the ports of call are places where I used to shop for food when I was the private chef for an Italian family on their yacht. It's bringing a wonderful story to life and I enjoy sharing it... live! 

As far as how this last trip in and around the Mediterranean has an influenced my cooking style... it re-ignited many things about Mediterranean cooking that I get very excited about and hungry for: freshness, simplicity, access, ingredients, and most important, a vast group of inhabitants that care very much about sometimes the littlest things that make that cooking and eating so accessible and pleasurable!

OLDWAYS: What are the biggest challenges of cooking at sea? Do you think dealing with them has made you a better chef?
DAVID: Years ago, when I cooked on the yacht, one of the biggest challenges in my cooking career was thrust upon me. On top of all the things Mother Nature will force upon those off shore, the owner's wife said to me during my original interview that nothing in my menus-- from mid-May to the beginning of October-- was to be repeated. They would be on board every weekend and for the full month of August... and I wasn't to serve the same thing twice! When the Mrs. explained why, it made perfect sense. We would be moving from country to country, region to region, port to port. Since the cuisine changes in each location, they didn't want to just see each place we visited, they wanted to taste them. A monster challenge turned into a great release! It forced me to let the markets and shops in each place tell me what I should be cooking. What a great way to cook, and for that matter, live! Has this made me a better chef? For sure, it has made me a better cook. Shouldn't we all live this way? Being in the Mediterranean this year brought that back home. Some things never change. And shouldn't.

OLDWAYS: Have you picked up or developed a new tip or trick that you can share with our readers?
DAVID: Much success in the kitchen starts at the source of fresh ingredients... for sure where something is bred, fished, harvested, or picked... but also in the shopping. Whether in an open air market or the supermarket, check in with seasonality, give yourself some time to peruse, walk around, and see what looks great. It is time well spent and no doubt one will eat better this way because freshness and flavor will be at the forefront. It's the essence of being "ingredient driven." And it's there for everyone. 

OLDWAYS: Can you share a favorite recipe? 
DAVID: I would be happy to share one!
 

Tartine of Bonito Tuna and White Beans
Tartine di Tonno e Fagioli
Recipe by Chef David Shalleck - Copyright © 2008 David Shalleck
Makes about 12 pieces

All but two of the ingredients in this recipe are in a Mediterranean pantry, so a trip to the market for a ripe red tomato and a baguette make the tartine a quick and easy- to- prepare antipasto or snack. Assemble as close to serving time as possible. The cacophony of flavors and textures is very alluring and your guests will no doubt reach for more! Harissa is a vibrant Tunisian chili paste worth the search. If you can’t find it, substitute by mashing a quarter teaspoon red pepper flakes and a pinch of powdered cumin with the olive oil.

Ingredients:
1 (12 ounce) jar white cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons harissa
1 tablespoon extra- virgin olive oil ,plus more for drizzling
Finely ground sea salt or fleur de sel
12 1/2-inch thick bias slices French baguette
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
3 tablespoons roughly chopped Italian parsley
1 medium red tomato (about 6 ounces)
4 ounces drained Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese bonito tuna packed in oil (about 3/4 cup)

Directions:
Set the oven rack to the lower middle position and preheat the broiler.
Mash the beans with the harissa, olive oil, and a 1/4 teaspoon of the salt into a paste consistency. ( It does not have to be completely smooth.) Adjust the seasoning to taste. Set aside. Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast on both sides until golden brown. Set aside. Combine the scallions with the parsley. Set aside. Remove the core from the tomato, cut it in half, then into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside.

To assemble the tartine, spread a tablespoon of the bean paste on the baguette toasts. Place a slice of tomato on each. Carefully break the tuna into 1- to 2- inch pieces and place on the tomato. Top with a generous pinch of the scallion-parsley mixture. Drizzle a little olive oil over each, and finish with a pinch of salt. Serve subito (immediately)!

Wine Recommendation: Fresh, dry, and crisp rosé from the Var, Vaucluse, or Luberon regions in southern France, dry white wine from Piedmont, Arneis or Gavi di Gavi, Sardinian Vermentino, or Falanghina and Greco di Tufo from Campania.

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