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In my experience, often the first question everyone asks when you get home from a cruise is, “How was the food?” Americans have become passionate and knowledgeable about the culinary world, their enthusiasm fueled by food-based television shows and celebrity chefs. So it’s not surprising that cruise lines are investing in an escalating competition to capture the loyalty of the foodie passenger.
Culinary appeal goes beyond the table. Holland America Line (HAL), which was a pioneer in culinary enrichment, established its Culinary Arts Centers presented by Food & Wine magazine 10 years ago; by 2007, the line had added classes for children. HAL provides cooking shows and hands-on classes conducted by top chefs, wine experts, noted culinary specialists and leading cookbook authors.
“The Culinary Arts Center is a highlight of our onboard enrichment program and, year after year, we strive to bring the most talented and entertaining culinary experts onboard,” said Richard Meadows, executive vice president, marketing, sales and guest programs for HAL.
Whole seagoing itineraries built around cuisine are being introduced by destination-oriented Azamara Club Cruises, including the Aug. 16 Route of the Wine Traders voyage. It offers 12 nights from Southampton to Seville with two full days in Bordeaux, where connoisseurs can travel to vineyards including St. Emilion, Margaux and Haut-Medoc. Azamara Quest also stays two days in St. Jean-de-Luz in the Basque region of France, which is known for its excellent cider houses and its easy access to Bayonne, home to fine chocolates, unusual cured ham and other delights.
Houston-based Tom Baker, who was acknowledged by Conde Nast Traveler with its Top Travel Specialist award in cruising, said his Cruise Center clientele emphasizes dining “even over the ship” in booking their vacations. He believes that television’s attention to dining has moved popular taste “from mass quantity to discriminating world cuisine.”
Dining plays an important role on ships beyond the food itself. John Delaney, Seabourn senior vice president of marketing and sales, said guests look for meals and dishes that will enhance their travel experience and help them to discover more about the cultures and destinations they visit.
“Dining is also a key part of the social life onboard,” he added. “Our open-seating dining encourages spontaneity and enables guests to meet new people and break bread together — the start of many lasting friendships.”
Chef John Suley, director of culinary operations for Celebrity Cruises, noted that people on vacation are spending a very valuable commodity — their time — and they are more particular than ever about their choices. Suley, the first cruise line chef to be invited to cook at the James Beard House, said the challenge is to keep the culinary level consistent when cooking for 3,000 people, which requires the best possible talent and the best possible products.
Baker also stressed the necessary willingness to invest in quality ingredients, talented culinary staff and space for them to operate.
“We’ve seen it over and over,” he added, “When a cruise line is run just by stockholder yield, you’re in trouble. You have to invest to have quality.”
Cruisers have the opportunity to sample the work of some of the best chefs in the world just steps from their rooms. Two examples are Michelin-rated Jean-Pierre Vigato, of Restaurant Apicius on the Champs-Elysees, who designs dining for Paul Gauguin Cruises, and James Beard Award winner Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, who creates dishes for Royal Caribbean’s 150 Central Park. Among the famous names who have put their imprint on cruise lines’ culinary offerings are Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa (Crystal Cruises), Todd English (Cunard Line), Dieter Muller (Hapag-Lloyd), Arnaud Lallement (Disney Cruise Line) and Cat Cora and Danny Grant (both with HAL).
Oceania Cruises is often mentioned by agents when it comes to cuisine at sea. Bob Binder, vice chairman and president of Prestige Cruises International, was a major force in shaping Oceania’s culinary program. Binder, who owns a winery in California’s Napa Valley, says Oceania’s culinary goal is not only to be the finest at sea, but to rival top shoreside restaurants.
“We buy extraordinary ingredients,” he said. “That means products such as 21-day dry-aged beef and custom-milled flour.”
Delaney also stresses quality of ingredients. Seabourn uses premium, sustainable beef from the Pacific Northwest-based Double R Ranch, known for its commitment to superior quality, animal well-being and environmental stewardship. Executive chefs are empowered to frequent local markets in the ports they visit, and augment their menus with seafood from local sources. In some instances, they also invite guests to go shopping with them.
Talent in the galleys is soaring, as well. Jacques Pepin’s partnership with Oceania gave the line access to other chefs who may not have previously imagined working on a cruise ship, and the line delivered a large galley space where they could use traditional techniques, with no shortcuts. Oceania’s partnerships with Bon Apetit and Wine Spectator further enhance its emphasis on incorporating current trends in dining.
“The big surprise was our program with Canyon Ranch,” Binder stated. “We brought them in to run the spa and, now, we have their selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food is vibrant and delicious.”
The response has been so strong that, in September, Oceania will launch Canyon Ranch cooking classes in its Bon Apetit Culinary Center. The ships also will have Canyon Ranch dishes on room service menus.
The same kind of care is being paid to more casual fare. Greg Poplewko, director of product development for Carnival Cruise Lines, noted that when the line was forging its partnership with Food Network star Guy Fieri, it sent samples of the beef it would use for his gourmet burgers to him for his approval. Attention to detail is critical; the new pizza restaurant on Carnival Sunshine provides the real Neapolitan product, using flour from Italy and baking its pizza in a specially made stone oven.
Agents can stress the value of this fine dining with their clients, who can often enjoy celebrity chefs’ dishes at little or no cost. On Crystal Cruises ships, for example, dining at the Nobu restaurants is complimentary, whereas in New York’s Nobu, a tasting menu runs from $65 to $125.
A function of fees for specialty restaurants is to balance supply and demand; nobody wants disgruntled passengers who can’t dine in the restaurant of their choice. Oceania, which does not charge for its alternative restaurants, allows each guest a reservation in each alternative restaurant; those who want additional dinners in a given venue are added to a waiting list. The morning traffic at the restaurant reservations desk can rival that of the shore excursion queue.
Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, noted that Royal Caribbean is grouping alternative dining for greater value. For instance, one package on Grandeur of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas and Serenade of the Seas costs $55 and includes meals at Chops Grille, Giovanni’s Table and Izumi Asian Cuisine. On Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, a $130 package includes meals at the Chef’s Table, Chops Grille and 150 Central Park.
“When you go on vacation, you are more interested in trying new experiences than at home,” Freed said.
Special dietary needs don’t mean diminished dining pleasure on cruise lines, which cater to everything from fat-free and low-salt diets to gluten-free meals.
“With special needs, we want to do it right,” Poplewko said. “You can’t bake gluten-free dishes in an oven where dishes with gluten have been prepared; if someone is really vulnerable to gluten, the food must be isolated.”
Vegetarian and vegan dishes are commonplace, and SeaDream Yacht Club even has a raw food menu in its main dining room.
Group cruises built around food and wine experiences are booming.
“The fusion of wine, food and travel is the Holy Grail of cruising,” said Tracy Michaels CTC, co-owner of Flying Dutchman Travel in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Michaels is doing big business in cruise charters, including themed food and wine sailings. Her seven-day cruise out of Tampa on Brilliance of the Seas in November brings Napa to the Caribbean, providing complimentary bottles for guests from seven winemakers, education panels galore and the presence of culinary names.
Freed said the emphasis on dining is a real opportunity for the knowledgeable agent, who can lead clients through the culinary maze on the seas. She urged agents to explain the variety of onboard dining experiences and encourage guests to plan ahead, especially for dinner, to avoid disappointment in what has become one of the hottest aspects of cruising.