Royal Caribbean International’s Frank Weber tells Elly Earls about the challenges involved in creating dining options to suit the myriad tastes of guests on the Oasis of the Seas.
There is no such thing as too much choice when it comes to a vessel the size of Royal Caribbean International’s (RCI) Oasis of the Seas. At 225,282t and boasting 16 decks and 2,700 staterooms, the world’s largest cruise ship needs an array of dining options to satisfy the tastes of its 5,400 guests. "The Oasis can compare to any major hotel resort in, say, Las Vegas, where guests can pick any restaurant on the strip," says
Frank Weber, RCI’s vice-president of food and beverage operations. "In our world, passengers expect the same diversity, meaning that variety is critical to the success of the ship. We’re not necessarily looking at providing new and exotic restaurant concepts, but we are concentrating on which cuisines are the most popular across the wide range of passengers on board."
Basics such as pizza, burgers, steak, seafood, ice cream, Italian and Asian cuisine all make the cut and Weber’s team ensures that the cuisine is authentic. In order to deliver suitable variety, operations are divided into three sections: traditional, evolutionary and revolutionary.
"Our repeat guests expect a certain product, which is very traditional, so we have the main dining room," Weber begins. "The evolutionary part includes features such as My Time Dining, which is a flexible dining option and really an evolution of what we already do."
As cookery-based TV becomes increasingly popular and the tastes of consumers develop, many guests expect a certain level of sophistication and innovation, which is where RCI’s revolutionary offerings come into play. Passengers are increasingly more willing to experiment with new spices, flavours and infusions, giving modern concepts such as Oasis’s signature fine dining restaurant, 150 Central Park, and Asian eatery Izumi, an integral place within the ship’s dining portfolio.
Indeed, the Oasis of the Seas is leading the way in terms of innovation, despite the difficulties of providing dining options for such a large range of guests. "We participate in all the major international trade shows and conferences," Weber explains. "It’s not necessarily a question of creating the most outrageous new concept; we want to offer the options that our guests are looking for. We generated an Asian concept for Izumi, for example, which has become extremely popular. The hot rock dishes at that venue are just taking off so I think we’re pretty much on trend."
The unique, high-end dining experience offered at 150 Central Park is something that has never been attempted on a non-niche cruise ship. While companies will typically hire a big-name chef, emblazoning their name on the menu, but accepting that they will rarely grace the restaurant with their presence, the Oasis has taken a very different approach.
"We wanted to have a chef who was going to be there everyday to not only have contact with the guests but to execute their menus and recipes on a daily basis," Weber remarks. "So we found a young, talented, award-winning chef, Keriann Von Raesfeld, who is almost like the American Idol of the culinary world, and gave her the opportunity to run her own restaurant. We wanted to have someone who our guests could identify with."
Guest feedback is of paramount importance to RCI and just as Weber relentlessly keeps up to date with the latest developments in the restaurant and hotel industries, he organises regular feedback sessions with the ship’s passengers; surveys and focus groups are particularly significant. "We ask them about the product offerings that we have today but also about things that they would like to see," Weber explains. "What is interesting for me is to find out what they cook when they’re at home, what their expectations are and which restaurants they visit frequently. We do a lot of research in this regard."
Thorough investigation has resulted in a more interactive experience on board the Oasis of the Seas. "People like to see how the food is prepared and they enjoy meeting the chefs," Weber says. "Whereas in the past you would have hidden the kitchen and everything that happens behind the scenes, today people want to practically sit at the stove. There are only two people that guests want to see: the captain and the chef."
On the menu
An increasing fascination with the source of their meals has led passengers to expect fresh produce, an obvious challenge on a ship the size of the Oasis. From freshly prepared products to local sourcing, the trend is moving steadily away from processed food, and the Miami-based company needs to keep up with the demands of its increasingly educated guests.
"People are going back to basics," acknowledges Weber. "So that’s what we do on all our ships; we bake our bread fresh daily and we cook our vegetables, stocks, sauces and soup fresh. Everything is made from scratch even on a larger operation."
Stringent quality assurance processes guarantee the standards of the food on a daily basis. "We do not try anything we cannot execute," Weber declares, emphasising that if the operator does not have the infrastructure or the people in place to implement something, it will not attempt it.
"We concentrate on what we do well and carry that out on a daily basis," he continues. "We have specific standards for each and every dish that is put on a guest’s plate – there is a specific recipe, presentation technique and instructions on how this should be carried out and, of course, we have the necessary management in place to accomplish this every day on our ships."
There are four main methods RCI uses to ensure that there are no lapses in quality. Firstly, product specifications are strict and a dialogue is maintained with the vendors so that the ship is sure to receive the agreed-upon product. "We work closely with our supply chain team and the vendors go through a rigorous approval process," Weber adds. Secondly, the staff employed, from the cook to the server, to the executive chef to the maitre d’, are of the highest quality and are involved in training and development schemes implemented by RCI.
The third factor is the maintenance of the infrastructure and the equipment, and, finally, the processes must be in place to bring these methods together. Staffing has suffered significant setbacks in recent years, particularly because of the growth of Dubai. "Dubai was a major competitor when it came to hiring and we were very concerned about it when the city was growing," Weber notes, highlighting that RCI recruits worldwide for the Oasis of the Seas to ensure the authenticity of its restaurants. But with the reversal of Dubai’s fortunes and the dramatic decrease in the growth of the hotel industry, cruise operators have gained the upper hand when it comes to hiring.
Weber hypothesises that the food and beverage situation will gradually develop in the coming years, citing an important factor which is likely to affect the tastes of cruise passengers: sustainability. As the emphasis shifts to farming and environmental awareness, he feels confident that the Oasis will continue to provide the varied dining options guests have come to expect. "There’s a focus on sustainability and it’s going to continue. It really is a way of life."