Celebrity Chefs Working With Cruise Lines

A New Food Culture At Sea

This isn't your grandmother's cruise ship buffet line. Cue the celebrity chefs.

Chips and dip at Michael's Genuine Pub, via Michael Schwartz.
Some argue Nobu's food on Crystal ships, above, began this trend.

By David Hochman
Originally appeared in November 2015 issue of Virtuoso Life

Dining at sea has never been more delicious. Cruise lines’ partnerships with celebrity chefs mean good-bye, buffet staples and hello, Michelin-level menus – plus the occasional star sighting on the sundeck. 

Crystal Cruises launched the trend in 2003, inviting sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa to bring his Japanese-Peruvian fusion to Crystal Symphony and, later, Crystal Serenity. “Crystal wanted to introduce a fine-dining sushi bar, and I wanted the challenge of maintaining my same level of quality at sea,” says Matsuhisa. “All of my signature dishes are on board – black cod with miso, new-style sashimi, sashimi salad, and more.”

Jacques Pépin signed on as Oceania Cruises’ executive culinary director the same year. Other lines soon called in more of the masters: Royal Caribbean International teamed up with Jamie Oliver and Miami’s Michael Schwartz. Most recently, Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se) signed on with Seabourn. We caught up with a few to talk about the charms and challenges of conquering highly competitive waters. 

Curtis Stone, Princess Cruises

The Aussie-born chef and television personality rose to fame as host of TLC’s Take Home Chef and now wins raves at his intimate Beverly Hills hot spot, Maude.

Signature dish: Handmade tagliatelle with roasted Alaskan king crab legs. 

What’s the most noticeable difference in restaurant life at sea? In L.A., I have a 25-seat restaurant where I’m managing the stove. To open restaurants on ships floating around the world – it’s a whole other level of orchestration and focus. 

And the biggest challenge? Sourcing ingredients is obviously tough when you’re away from shore. You need to work with purveyors who know what works best depending on each cruise leg. 

What’s been a pleasant discovery? Our kitchen brigades are part of a workforce of chefs and assistants from around the world. They bring know-how and an awareness of flavors that’s truly global. 

I’d most love to cruise … From Copenhagen to Norway and on to Sweden. I’ve always wanted to see the fjords and experience the white nights.

Port you hunger for? When I took my wife to La Boqueria market in Barcelona, she sighed and said, “I could live here.” I cannot disagree.

Jacques Pépin, Oceania Cruises

Once a personal chef to Charles de Gaulle, the venerable French gourmand is best known for his cookbooks and television appearances – he shared an Emmy with Julia Child. Next November, Pépin joins the Marina in the Mediterranean for ten days of cooking lessons, special menus, food-focused shore excursions, and more.

Signature dish: Rotisserie chicken served on Versace plates.

Why work with Oceania? I love the guests and the crews, their interactions and warmth. This year was my 80th birthday, and I was on board doing some cooking demonstrations and lectures. Suddenly the lights went out, and the whole ship began singing “Happy Birthday.”

What’s the biggest challenge on board? Keeping the products rolling so you have fresh fruit and vegetables all the time. 

One thing you love, compared to land-based restaurants? In the grand dining room, people lavishly spend two or three hours because they have all the time in the world. There used to be first seating, second seating, et cetera. Now you come when you want and stay as long as you want, and that luxury encourages people to try new things – sweetbreads, offal, things you might not want to spend $30 on at home. Here you don’t pay, which gives you the freedom to try anything.

How has your perception of cruise cuisine changed? I once did a book with Craig Claiborne and we talked about those classic midnight buffets. You’d have the old-world dishes with aspic or cream of tartar, or maybe a chateaubriand. Today’s menus are much more evolved: We might have a crispy duck breast or ibérico pork, wonderful fresh Mediterranean fish, lobster – it’s all very elegant and delicious without being stodgy.

If you had to pick a favorite route … I always love the Mediterranean – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain. There’s a little restaurant in Málaga I love so much called El Tintero. I look for any excuse to have their grilled fish or extraordinary razor clams. 

Todd English, Cunard Line

The Bostonian, a four-time James Beard Award winner, is known for his restaurants Ça Va, Olives, and Figs, among others. 

Signature dish: Delicate handmade “Pumpkin Puree Love Letters” ravioli.

How does Cunard stand out to you? It’s timeless. It’s elegant. These ships are as majestic and iconic as anything out there. On the Queen Mary 2, Todd English Restaurant is set at the very end of the stern, looking over the pool terrace, and it’s an adventure to get there. I love that. Guests tell me they feel like they’ve discovered an out-of-the-way gem in some far-off city. 

Describe one unique-to-sea challenge: Funny story: The second day after we launched the restaurant, the QM2 was coming out of Southampton and hit 30-foot swells. Even with modern stabilizers, we were rocking. That was rough. Fortunately, 70 percent of diners didn’t leave their cabins, so the kitchen stayed quiet. 

What opportunities does it create? It’s a floating city, and you make everything on board: homemade bread, homemade ice cream – we do the pastas. We’re independent in many ways, but we have the best purveyors, particularly around the Mediterranean. I’ve contributed well over a thousand recipes to Cunard, and our chefs can add twists to anything that’s fresh and in season.  

Ports where you’d most like to shop food markets? Singapore or Tokyo. 

Michael Schwartz, Royal Caribbean International

Also a James Beard Award winner, Schwartz reinvented what’s cool about cooking in the Miami heat. His flagship, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, opened in the city’s Design District in 2007.

Signature dish: Homemade ricotta and porcini mushroom tortellini. 

Why cook at sea? It’s a unique environment. Whether you’re in the kitchen of casual Michael’s Genuine Pub or fine-dining 150 Central Park, you’re learning from an international workforce and seeing what “running a tight ship” truly means. 

One challenge of galleys, compared to city kitchens: For chefs, the hallways are long and the elevators are slow. When we make a run for ingredients, we call it “foraging.” 

Your favorite onboard experience? I have three kids – 18, 15, and 12 – and having them on board is a great bonding experience. We did a one-week cruise that sailed out of Barcelona and hit six ports in Spain, Italy, and France – a major family highlight. 

The biggest misconception you face? The cliché is that cruise food is horrible, gray, dreary, and all frozen – you know the story. And my first cruise confirmed it. I won’t mention the line, but it made me want to raise the stakes when creating our menus.

Port you hunger for? Any place in Italy. Any place.

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