John Poh of Crystal Symphony

By Lew Toulmin

As the head chef at the famous Asian restaurant, Jade Garden, aboard the 5-star cruise ship Crystal Symphony, John Poh has reached the pinnacle of cruise cuisine. He owes his success to talent, hard work, a passion for food, and experience in over 100 kitchens around the world. I spoke to Mr. Poh while on a voyage from Lisbon to Rome in the summer of 2005.

Chef of 100 kitchens

John Poh was born in Singapore and raised in a “food family.” His father was the head chef to the British Governor-General of Singapore, and his older and younger brothers are chefs. John says, “I saw my father and mother always cooking, and this gave me my inspiration. By age 10
I knew I wanted to be a chef.”

He attended Singapore’s Nan Yang College, majoring in culinary arts and the hospitality industry. He worked two years as a junior cook at the famous Mandarin hotel in Singapore, then was hired by a culinary consulting firm in Houston, Texas.

“This firm provided temporary staff and consultants to numerous hotels and restaurants,” said John. “I was sent to some restaurants for just four days, and to others for up to three months. My job was to train staff, teach them new Chinese dishes, straighten out problems and develop new recipes. I averaged 25 assignments a year for five years, and thus I’ve worked in over 100 kitchens around the world. It was a great learning experience.”

John was hired by one of his clients, the Ming Court restaurant in Orlando, Florida, but still did short stints at various other locations, including the nearby Peabody Hotel.

“One day some executives from Crystal Cruises ate at the Peabody — and liked all my dishes,” said John. “They made me an offer, and I’ve been the head Asian chef aboard Crystal Symphony for the last nine years.”

Passion for food

There are four rules for creating great dishes, according to John.

“First and most important,” he said, “the chef must have a passion for food. Cooking must be his hobby, his love and his dream, not just a job. Second, he must know how to identify and obtain the best, freshest ingredients. Third, he must cook fresh to order, with no precooking. Fourth, he must have skills in administration, personnel, finance and logistics.”

Inspiration for John comes mainly from eating in local restaurants in the many ports he visits. But he feels it is unethical to ask for recipes or even quiz waiters about ingredients.

He said, “I rely on my sense of taste to be able to re-create a desirable dish. I retry the dish in my kitchen after each visit, and may have to go back three or four times to the restaurant, but eventually I can always duplicate any dish.”

Jade Garden delights

I sampled John’s cooking at the Crystal Symphony’s specialty restaurant Jade Garden. The ship has a main dining room and two alternate dining venues, of which Jade Garden is one and an Italian restaurant is the other. Reservations must be made, and a modest $6-per-person gratuity charge is levied.

The service and atmosphere of the Jade Garden were excellent and the staff was very flexible.

“We often have passengers who stay aboard for two or three months,” John said, “so we are prepared to vary their dining experience by creating almost any Asian dish on request.”

Highlights of my meal included a sampler of appetizers, with very tender baby back ribs in a fabulous sweet sauce and a delicious tempura shrimp with a perfectly straight, long body. The tempura batter was terrific, not at all oily, but the big mystery was how did that shrimp get so ruler-straight? Even the maître d’ didn’t know how that was done.

Later I had a marvelous entrée of lobster in basil sauce — no hint of rubberyness here — and a lemon-tangerine prawn that tasted like a sensational dessert.

The real dessert was yet to come. Many Asian restaurants don’t even attempt desserts other than lychees, but on Crystal Symphony they are a specialty.

According to John, “Our alliance with Wolfgang Puck and his famous Chinois on Main restaurant has really paid off. We designed several desserts and a number of entrées in close cooperation with Puck and his staff. I trained at his restaurant, and some of his top people came on board ship and worked in the Jade Garden kitchen.”

My favorites were a creamy homemade vanilla ice cream, a smooth chocolate mousse and a superb custard with raspberry sauce in a filo basket. These were the best desserts I’ve ever had in an Asian or Chinese restaurant, afloat or ashore.

Looking ahead

John thinks that Asian cuisine will expand on cruise ships in the future. “Modern Asian fusion cooking is very popular,” he said. “It fits in with the trend toward more health-conscious eating. And it reflects the exposure of the younger generation to all kinds of global cuisines.”

What does the future hold for John Poh?

“I love cooking on the Crystal Symphony, but someday I would like to open a small, exclusive, 35-seat restaurant in the U.S. I want to continue my focus on Asian cuisine. I don’t want a mass kitchen, just a small place where I can continue to practice high-quality cooking and express my passion for great food.”

Appropriately, I ended my meal at the Jade Garden restaurant with a fortune cookie which read, “Nothing in life is accomplished without passion.”

Coming up

You can call Crystal Cruises in Los Angeles, California, at 866/446-6625 or visit, or set up a cruise through your travel agent.

Next month I will profile a cruise staff member about whom no one writes: the person who cleans your cabin.

Lew Toulmin’s cruise aboard the “Crystal Symphony” was partially hosted by Crystal Cruises.