Rudi Sodamin"Ingredients are like kings; chefs are the servants," according to Rudi Sodamin, master chef for Royal Caribbean International (RCI). Sodamin attributed the quote to Brillat-Savarin who he said is the greatest gastronome the world has ever known. "Following this credo, we are using aroma and fresh products while offering fine service," Sodamin continued. "Our menus reflect tradition, history and innovation." This bold statement, which was made in conjunction with the introduction of RCI's Jewel of the Seas, is setting the tone for food services aboard today's cruise fleet.

The buzz words are alternative restaurants and multiple dining options. Nearly every ship offers passengers different dining options where they can dine in traditional style in the main dining room one night, seek out a smaller and more intimate restaurant another night and dine casually buffet-style - even alfresco - yet a third night. Some ships have so many dining choices that passengers do not even have to go back to the same restaurant twice during their cruise.

While new ships incorporate different dining venues in their design, older ships have been refurbished and upgraded to offer alternative dining as well.

New Ships

Among the new ships that have recently entered service are the Diamond and Sapphire Princesses, both of which offer more dining opportunities than previous Princess Cruises ships.

Both have five main dining rooms - one traditional seating dining room and four smaller restaurants for those choosing Princess' "Anytime Dining" option. The four dining rooms each feature different themes and menus - Italian, Southwestern, Pacific Rim and a steakhouse.

In addition, the ships also offer another Italian restaurant - Trattoria Sabatini - with a special eight-course menu for a nominal charge.

Passengers can also choose the ships' food court for informal dining as well as other options including poolside meals.

Introduced in April, the Westerdam also promises to offer passengers more dining choices than ever.

The main dining room offers four seatings and features optional cuisine for the health conscious, as well as vegetarian items that can be prepared with or without eggs and dairy products.

In addition, passengers can dine at the Pinnacle Grill - a reservations-only restaurant featuring Pacific Northwest cuisine.

The Lido deck provides dinner in a more casual setting than the main dining room with several self-service food stations and a grill.

Also introduced in April, the Jewel of the Seas features a two-deck main dining room and two alternative venues - Chops Grill, a steakhouse, and Portofino , an Italian restaurant - as well as an indoor and outdoor self-service restaurant.

Launched earlier this year, the Carnival Miracle has a main dining room for traditional service, but with four different seatings, giving passengers more flexibility.

For passengers seeking a more upscale dining experience, the ship also as the reservations-only Nick and Nora's Supper Club, modeled after New York steakhouses.

Passengers who prefer a more casual style can dine in the Lido restaurant, which turns into the Seaview Bistro at night, with a café-style atmosphere.

Complimenting the food service on many ships are a variety of wine, martini and champagne bars, as well as sports bars with a broad selection of beers.

Keeping Up

New low carb menus have also been introduced over the past couple of months.

Carnival Cruise Lines is offering an appetizer, salad and entrée on its dinner menus with low carbohydrate counts. The primary ingredients focus heavily on vegetables, meat and fish "blended with flavorful seasonings and creative preparation," according to Carnival.

Sample low carb appetizers include hickory smoked Alaskan salmon, beefsteak tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and escargots.

Low carb entrees include filet mignon, Long Island duck, prime rib of beef and pork loin.

A reduced carb bread selection is available as well.

Crystal Cruises has also introduced low carb menus, including special pastas, ice creams and breakfast selections - in addition to the line's selections that are low in fat, sodium and cholesterol.

Commented Toni Neumeister, Crystal 's vice president of food and beverage operations: "Together with our extensive fitness programs and wellness education, the lighter fare and low-carb options offer our guests the choice of a more healthy vacation environment."

Added Crystal 's corporate executive chef Gunther Lorentz: "By providing the choices, we believe it may be easier to maintain a lifestyle routine on Crystal than it is at home."

Balancing Act

While the cruise lines are upgrading their food services to new heights, the chefs must also meet budget requirements.

One benefit of size, however, is economies of scale.

Thus, Carnival spends an average of $6.67 on food per day, per person, for passengers and crew, according to estimates by Cruise Industry News (CIN).

RCI and Celebrity Cruises spend a combined average of $8.47 per day for passengers and crew.

Other cruise lines do not make their budgets available nor will they say how much they spend. Although Crystal suggested that its food spending was significantly higher than CIN's estimates for Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Setting the Course

Sailing forward, new ships can be expected to offer even more dining alternatives in more dramatic and trendsetting venues.

RCI has also experimented with fast food outlets such as Johnny Rockets, which has been very successful, and is now also serving up Seattle 's Best coffee.

Many cruise lines have teamed up with celebrity chefs such as Michel Roux at Celebrity; Todd English aboard the Queen Mary 2; Piero Selvaggio, Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa at Crystal; and Charlie Palmer at Seabourn Cruise Line; lending their expertise and reputations to the ships.

Silversea Cruises features dishes created by Relaix and Chateaux - an association of hotels and restaurants around the world claiming cuisine of the highest standard, while Radisson Seven Seas Cruises has developed a relationship with Le Cordon Bleu - the acclaimed French-based culinary school.

Borrowing a phrase from Radisson, "some of the best restaurants may no longer be ashore; instead they are onboard." - Oivind Mathisen

Chefs in Focus

In this issue, CINQ is focusing on four chefs at different cruise lines, asking them how they serve thousands of meals every day, stay within their budgets, while not sacrificing their standards or running out of anything in the middle of the ocean.

Excerpt from the Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine: Summer 2004