Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson
I’ve been rethinking the continental breakfast lately. I believe it can be elevated to a healthier morning start than the usual sugar-laden pastries and BHT-covered cereals that promote weight gain and cancer.
The typical continental breakfast is a light meal that is shelf-stable and suitable for large groups. The concept is more than a century old, having been around since at least 1896. It originated in Great Britain, where it was promoted as a way to appease the appetites of traveling Europeans, who preferred a much lighter fare to start their day than Britain’s traditional eggs and sausages.
When I visit my family in Italy, we have coffee and a sweet pastry in the morning, sometimes at the local bar – yes, bar. But whenever I am thinking about changing the menu on board, I remind myself that what interests me may not interest the guests.
First, I look over my preference sheet for the likes and dislikes of the guests or owners. Do they love smoked salmon or other smoked meats? Perhaps eggs are their thing in the morning.
I also like to visit high-end hotels to see what they have. At one boutique hotel in Rome, the continental breakfast was very impressive. It offered tarts and pies handmade by the owner, a selection of hand-smoked and aged meats, crafted cheeses and seafood. Platters of vegetables, locally grown fruit and handmade breads rounded out the buffet.
Sure, the original plan for a continental breakfast is a contingent of muffins, pastries, cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt, cold meats and cheeses. Beverages might include orange juice, tomato juice, coffee, milk and assorted teas. But if the guests want more, take the menu to the next level with the choice of a few cooked meats, eggs, omelets, seafood and, of course, vegetarian platters.
No more slapping that waffle through the rotator. I offer corn bread waffles with honey butter, sliced filet, egg cups, stuffed eggs, salmon, and a variety of jams and condiments along with the typical bagels.
One of my menu ideas that went over very well with guests and crew was egg cups. Each one is different. Some have spinach in them, some have bacon, some have vegetables and cheese. A mini egg muffin in a pastry cup is what it looks like. This can be served warm, with fresh popovers instead of muffins.
Another idea is a juice bar, but not with just the typical juices. If you have a juicer on board, consider making fresh green juice, or fruit juices combined with greens. Cucumbers, spinach, celery and sunflower sprouts make a great juice. Be creative – the sky is the limit.
For guests who love fresh fruit in the morning, consider individual fruit cups served in crystal, or a large platter of freshly cut, locally grown, exotic fruits.
Fresh-made bread is a must. I make it in the evening so that it can proof in the night, then I just flip the bake switch in the morning, and the guests wake up to the heavenly smell of bread in the oven.
Croissants are not that hard to make with a little practice, and even simple rolls or nut-and-seed bread can be accomplished with little effort. Some guests prefer muffins, and even those who don’t normally eat pastries might be tempted. Perhaps a hazelnut tart to start the day – I know I went for one when it was presented to me.
I once knew a doctor who ate cake for breakfast. I was shocked the first time I saw this. But if you think about it, most Europeans eat some form of pastry for breakfast, from beignets to cream-filled concoctions and chocolate. So cake is roughly the same principle.
Have the usual favorite jams and jellies on hand, but also include savory jams for the savory bagels and meats. I love a great tomato spiced jam with smoked salmon, and homemade lemon curd is so much better than store-bought. Orange curd is also great with meats. Varied jams and jellies will elevate your continental breakfast. So will a breakfast pâté made of vegetables and eggs, or maybe one made of smoked salmon and cold asparagus.
As chefs, we have to consistently keep the guests interested. But first, find out from the owners what they would like to have first thing in the morning. Some don’t want change in a changing world, and that is quite all right. But some guests do. Vary what you serve with that in mind.
It shouldn’t take the chef or stew long to set up a good continental breakfast for the guests. Plan the menu ahead a week or two. Change it up. Never offer the same thing day in, day out. I would like to suggest that this also apply to the crew breakfast, by the way. I know I can only eat eggs for about two days before they become boring.
Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine, and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome below.