Rob Ingram assesses the brave new world of cruise-ship dining
SURELY we all secretly suspect that when the 80,000-tonne Pacific Palm Nautilus Ventura leaves port, 40,000 tonnes of that is food which, during the next 11 days and 10 nights of cruising, will be relocated within the Bermuda shorts and muu-muus of grateful passengers. Traditionally, the food side of cruising has been all about buffets between breakfast and brunch, smorgasbords between lunch and afternoon tea, and pizzas, pastas, burgers and bar snacks between dinner and the midnight buffet.
Aside from dining rooms and restaurants, the most popular amenities on cruise ships have become grills, carveries, supper clubs, sushi bars, trattorias, tapas bars, delis, diners and patisseries. And the most appreciated facility is 24-hour room service for those whose trousers no longer fit them.
At sea, popular names for food outlets include Lido, Poolside, Seaview, Horizon, Veranda and Stardust, but my favourite is Royal Caribbean’s Windjammer Cafe and don’t tell me that was an innocent oversight.
But now it’s the winds of change that are blowing and, instead of the passengers looking like an over-inflated Michelin Man, it is Michelin stars directing the kitchens.
A melange of celebrity chefs have created alliances with cruise lines through specialty fine-dining rooms that replicate the experience of their signature restaurants or by presiding over the creation of featured menu items.
Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White, Nobu Matsuhisa, Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Ettore Bocchia and Joachim Splichal are contributing to a new shipboard fine-dining trend called ‘‘ cruisine’’.
Serge Dansereau of Sydney’s The Bathers’ Pavilion has also made the jump from beach to ocean by becoming consultant executive chef to the Australiabased up-market expedition cruise ship Orion. He’s also on board with gourmet providore Simon Johnson for food-themed cruises that include demonstration classes. Orion is best known for adventure cruising and, as one of the key architects of modern Australian cuisine, Dansereau’s culinary adventures are legend.
‘‘ Let’s face it,’’ says Cruise Lines International Association spokesman Dan Hanrahan, ‘‘ on any cruise itinerary the favourite destination is the dining room. But what we’re seeing today are more options in restaurants, in dining schedules and in menus.’’
The move towards haute cuisine on the high seas has come about through the collision of two other trends. Celebrity chef worship has more or less replaced organised religion, and the more clearly defined demographics of cruise ships have lured younger and savvier passengers. Lean and lite, lacto-vegetarian spa cuisine, ethnic culinary influences and sommelier wine selections are all part of the cruisine scene.
P & O Cruises Australia, which operates Pacific Dawn and Pacific Sun, has begun a culinary overhaul aimed at infusing favoured Australian food styles, produce and flavours into its menus. On the plate, this translates as dishes such as coral trout served with a lobster ragout and beurre blanc sauce, and wagyu beef burgers served on basil and garlic focaccia.
The P & O Cruises food and beverage team hunted out the country’s best providores before creating new menus and wine lists. It ditched international wine brands in support of 64 Australian and New Zealand producers and will also present a wine lecture program. Says executive chef Uwe Stiefel, ‘‘ The changes respond to consumer demand, with Australian passengers now demonstrating more loyalty towards local brands and produce.’’
British-based P & O Cruises will also have its Arcadia in Australian waters in January, showcasing its association with British superchef Rhodes, who has a constellation of Michelin stars and is credited with reinvigorating his homeland’s cuisine.
Rhodes has signature restaurants on Arcadia and Oriana; P & O is also headlining Hell’sKitchen chef and Gordon Ramsay mentor White in a fine-dining venue The White Room and at a less formal family eatery on its latest cruise liner, Ventura.
Rhodes is at pains to debunk the impression that his role might be to contribute a few favourite dishes and pocket the dosh.
He says that four times a year he hosts P & O’s chefs at his London restaurants, where they learn to prepare all new menu change dishes under his supervision.
‘‘ The dishes are also photographed,’’ he says, ‘‘ so the onboard chefs know how they should taste and how they should look.’’
And he takes his involvement further by researching local ingredients at destination ports. ‘‘ We are celebrating the adventure of travel, so it makes sense to give each dish a local reference,’’ he says.
White, a convert to the joys of cruising, is as enthusiastic about the family restaurant as he is about The White Room. ‘‘ One of the aspects of cruising I particularly like is that it allows different stratas of society to share an experience,’’ he says. ‘‘ Cruising has become inclusive and accessible, so I am happy for my food to be inclusive and accessible, too.’’
Cunard has aligned its fine-food program with US glamour chef Todd English who, with 19 US restaurants to direct, plus the in-flight menu for Delta Airlines, jumped at the chance to have signature restaurants on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.
He says his restaurants at sea should offer diners the same sense of anticipation and satisfaction as finding a brilliant new restaurant in Manhattan. ‘‘ Diners should forget they are on a ship,’’ he says. ‘‘ Not just the food, but service and atmosphere have to be of the highest order.’’
Nobu Matsuhisa this year extended his culinary alliance with Crystal Cruises by opening two new restaurants — Silk Road and The Sushi Bar — aboard the popular Crystal Symphony. His food style is a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian influences, and the restaurants’ chefs are Nobu-trained in presenting the delicate nuances involved. The success of Nobu New York, which he owns in partnership with Robert De Niro, has led to the establishment of Nobu restaurants in six countries, including in Australia at Melbourne’s Crown Casino complex.
The Yachts of Seabourn consistently tops polls for its onboard dining designed by executive chef Charlie Palmer, who trained with Georges Blanc in France, founded New York culinary landmark Aureole, and won two James Beard Foundation awards for elevating the standards of progressive American cuisine.
Seabourn’s three ships feature single-seating dining rooms with full-sized restaurant kitchens. Palmer says his new menus reflect an ultra-luxury style with a contemporary twist. Classic combinations can be found but also more eclectic offerings inspired by exotic ports of call.
‘‘ Seabourn’s discerning guests are accustomed to the best,’’ he says. ‘‘ Our job is to surprise and delight them throughout their voyage.’’
Jacques Pepin, personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, oversees all the culinary programs for Oceania Cruises. The master chef’s involvement embraces the creation of menus, wine lists and the training of onboard executive chefs. Pepin insists on writing the wine list to ensure each dish has a selection of perfectly complementary drops.
Michelin-starred Italian superchef Bocchia has gone so far as to introduce molecular gastronomy to the adventurous on the Costa Cruises flagships. Following in the sticky footsteps of Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, Bocchia uses kitchen physics to conjure up familiar flavours in the form of foams and gels to challenge the palate. A favourite is fish wrapped in leek leaves and cooked with a melted sugar mixture instead of oil to cut cooking time, retain moisture and create a fat-free product. His aim, he says, is to maximise flavour intensity and drama at the table.
But it is Dansereau who somehow scores highest in the credibility stakes. Orion, for which he designs the dining experience, has a maximum of 100 passengers. ‘‘ That’s about the same number of covers as my restaurant,’’ he says, ‘‘ so I’m comfortable with the scale. And the way the itinerary is structured, I’m totally confident about a consistent supply of produce. On a 2000-passenger ship, a la carte can probably work reasonably well in a separate dining room of about 100 seats, but I don’t think I’d be putting my name to a ship’s entire food program.
‘‘ The consistent supply of fresh provisions would be a nightmare. However, I’d much rather be producing a good meal on a ship than in an aircraft.’’
High seas: Passengers aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria enjoy casual fine dining in Lido restaurant, with dishes from across the world
Raw talent: Nobu, right, prepares sushi for Crystal Serenity
Top deck: P & O superchef Gary Rhodes
Masterclass: Consulting chef Serge Dansereau with kitchen staff aboard Orion