The Culinary Cruise
Culinary standards have improved dramatically on the industry’s premier cruise liners and passenger expectations have risen with them. Frances Marcellin looks at some of the latest strategies to attract passengers and the challenges involved with serving top-quality meals and retaining suitable cooking and catering talent.
Murano Restaurant - Celebrity Solstice courtesy Cruise News Weekly
According to the Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA) Economic Impact Analysis, global demand for cruising has increased by 68% worldwide over the last ten years. This growing demand has seen the number of passengers grow from 13 million in 2004 to 22 million in 2014, requiring the services of nearly one million full-time employees.
As the global appeal of cruising has increased, so have customers' expectations, especially when it comes to the food and drink they expect to consume. "Most people think of a deluxe buffet when they think of cruise dining and, while that is one option, there are plenty of additional dining delights available on a cruise ship," said Cindy D'Aoust, acting CEO of CLIA. "Today's cruises offer specialty dining options that invite guests for once-in-a-lifetime palate experiences."
More choice means more catering challenges
Choice has increased exponentially on cruises over the last 15 years due to increased foreign travel, internet access, media coverage, and celebrity chef culture. As a result, providing innovative dining experiences for today's cruise passengers has become essential - but this is also a major challenge for the food and beverage teams, in terms of recruiting staff, as well as creating and maintaining high dining standards.
"Travellers are getting more sophisticated in their tastes, so seek a higher standard of dining when they travel, says Adam Coulter, editor of the UK's Cruise Critic. "Bringing well-known, and highly respected names on board enables cruise lines to target this market and offer experiences that travellers truly value."
Celebrity Cruises has been pushing the boat out to attract sophisticated foodies to its voyages and has been partnering with Bravo Media since 2014 on the "Top Chef at Sea" experience. These include interactive dining experiences, private cooking classes, demonstrations, and private dinners.
Holland America also offers a highly sophisticated culinary experience in partnership with Food & Wine magazine with more than 60 renowned guest chefs. It also has a culinary council composed of renowned chefs from around the world, including the line's master chef, Rudi Sodamin.
Other notable partnerships with top chefs include Oceania Cruises' partnership with French chef Jacques Pépin and Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas partnership with Jamie Oliver, Michael Swartz, and Devin Alexander.
Combating shortages in Tahiti
Bringing in a world-famous chef is also a strategy that Paul Gaugin Cruises has undertaken through working with Jean-Pierre Vigato, "chef propriétaire" of the two Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant Apicius. Vigato has been the inspiration behind the signature menus on the Paul Gaugin five-star ship for the last few years.
"Guests expect gourmet cuisine and we offer this in three dining venues on the Paul Gaugin," says Florence Courbiere, chief operating officer for Paul Gauguin Cruises. "Dining experiences include l'Etoile, which showcases an array of tempting specialties. La Veranda showcases the culinary creations of celebrity chef Jean-Pierre Vigato. Polynesian specialties are served poolside at Le Grill."
Paul Gaugin operates in remote places in French Polynesia and the South Pacific and despite sourcing as locally as possible, Tahiti, the company's homeport, can encounter shortages. "Sometimes it is challenging to supply on time if cargo vessels are delayed and we have to air freight in case of urgency," explains Courbiere, adding that the diversity of products is also limited. "A large network helps with this and we also benefit from the suppliers' network of the hotels."
On top of supply and demand issues, cruise operators are also challenged by having to source, employ catering crew for long contracts, as well as train and retain them.
Top chefs attract passengers and improve staff training
While the remote location can sometimes cause produce supply issues, Courbiere says that the attractiveness of the South Pacific and the small size of the vessel is an advantage and as a result the company has a number of staff that has been there for many years. However, he concedes that staff do sometimes leave to work in other destinations.
Continuous training and on board promotion is essential to keeping up the company's high standards, explains Courbiere, and partnering with a top chef is not only beneficial in terms of attracting passengers, but also to retaining and training the catering team. "Having a signature, well-known chef, Jean-Pierre Vigato brings a lot in terms of training and new ideas and is also a draw for guests," he says. "It also enables us to serve new recipes and keep updated on the latest culinary trends and techniques."
Partnering with a famous chef to attract passengers and train and retain catering staff is also a strategy that Crystal Cruises follows. Crystal has been working with world-renowned chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa since 2003 serving up his Japanese-Peruvian creations in Silk Road and The Sushi Bar.
Matsuhisa personally trains all chefs, designs all the menus and frequently visits the ships for ongoing refinement. For 2016, Crystal Serenity's ten-day Alaska cruise will even have Matsuhisa returning to the ship to mingle with guests. "Food and the overall dining experience is such an integral component of a destination's culture, as well as the experience shared among travellers aboard Crystal ships," says Edie Rodriguez, Crystal's president and CEO.
Free and diet-friendly dining options
While alternative luxury dining certainly attracts passengers, it is not an appealing option for all due to the extra cost involved. As a result free dining options are also being developed. "Inclusive options are improving as cruise lines recognise the importance of offering passengers more flexibility and choice when it comes to dining," says Coulter.
This has led some cruise lines to invest in the main dining room experience for those who prefer to keep to their all-inclusive options. The American Table and American Feast dining concepts, for example, have been introduced to Carnival's main dining rooms.
Royal Caribbean has also introduced Dynamic Dining where passengers can eat when they please. Special diets, from gluten free to low-calorie, are also being considered more carefully in order to attract passengers, such as Divinly Decadence on Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, where all dishes are 500 calories are less. The extra charges to dine here were eradicated earlier on this year to increase the number of inclusive eateries available on board.
Standard of food set to increase as passenger numbers grow
The number of cruise passengers is growing each year and, according to Statista, more than 25 million people are expected to travel each year by 2019. As competition continues to rise, and with even more potential passengers to attract and staff to retain, the range and choice of dining options is also predicted to increase.
"The standard of food on cruise ships has always been high, but cruise lines continue to expand on this as a route to appeal to both new audiences and returning guests," says Coulter.