The Lido on the Carnival FreedomFrom dining with the chefs to design-your-own cupcakes and Indonesian tea time, there are many new and unique offerings at sea when it comes to cuisine.

“There’s so much happening in food and beverage,” Frank Weber, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of food and beverage operations, said quite aptly.

Over the past decade, celebrity chefs at sea have been the rage. These chefs, who are well-known for their restaurant(s) on land, generally influence key menu selections aboard ship and sail periodically with the cruise lines they represent. However, this trend has recently evolved into up-close-and-personal encounters with cruise lines’ top in-house chefs. Many cruise lines now offer variations of these “dine with the chef” dinner experiences. These exclusive dinners are offered each cruise, impose a surcharge greater than alternative restaurants at sea, and generally couple wines with sumptuous food.

Aboard Holland America Line, Dine with the Chefs is a six course dinner that pairs wine with the meal and is only offered once per cruise. According to Holland America Line’s Steve Kirsch, director of culinary operations, passengers especially like the interactive nature of this program since chefs prepare the food right in front of the guests.

“Choice” still is a very prevalent buzz word when it comes to cruise cuisine. This especially applies to options of “when” to eat dinner. This past year, Carnival Cruise Lines began rolling out the trendy new option of “Your Choice Dining” which offers open dinner seating in addition to assigned seating. According to Cyrus Marfatia, vice president of food and beverage for Carnival, generally 300 to 400 passengers choose this option per cruise but that number is growing. 

There is no shortage of choice for dinner options on Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas. The ship boasts 24 different places to eat and according to Weber, “the Oasis offers the most variety of any ship in the industry.”

There’ll also be plenty new dining venues on the Disney Dream when it debuts in January.  This includes the Royal Palace, the ship’s formal restaurant. Taking off on the many classic Disney movies about princesses and princes, the restaurant “brings a royal feast to our guests,” said Ozer Balli, vice president of hotel operations.

According to Hans Heger, director of hotel operations for V.Ships, there is a trend of sustainable development on cruise ships. “There is more awareness in the market these days,” he said and noted that most lines are not serving over-fished seafood, for example.

Another trend is that passengers want to know more about their food. According to Tracy Jessop, product director for Cunard Line: “Sourcing information is growing in importance with travelers being more interested in ingredients, processes and inspirations behind the culinary and spirits offered on board.”

All cruise lines face the challenges of how to keep food consistent and made to order as the number of passengers increases due to the ever larger cruise ships being built. Cunard Line’s Chef Zimmermann said his goal is to cook for hundreds of onboard guests just as he would for a family of eight. He said he accomplishes this by “attention to detail, organization, and techniques that combine tradition and modernity.”

While all the executives queried said they do not compromise quality even in light of the tough economic climate since fall 2008, Heger pointed out that the cost of food index has doubled worldwide since 1998. Thus, “there’s been continued pressure on purchasing,” according to Heger.  

Marfatia, like other executives, voiced that the guest experience is number one priority even when faced with economic pressures. He pointed out ways that Carnival manages food purchasing which include: “smart menu” management; team work shore side; and seeking value in the market.

Royal Caribbean also takes another niche seriously: healthy lifestyles. “One of my main efforts is to change the perception that you will gain weight on a ship,” said Weber. “Actually, the level of fresh, light preparation is very high,” he added. All meals are under 500 calories in Oasis’ Solarium bistro. All Royal Caribbean ships offer a three-course menu nightly in the main dining room that is 800 calories or less.

Excerpt from Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine: Summer 2010