Until very recently, cruiseships were not synonymous with haute cuisine. “I imagine big tables of 12 diners, traditional, rich and unimaginative food, and the captain getting bored with his passengers while his passengers get fat,” says Jean- Luc Naret, who freely admits that the images conjured up at the mention of the cruiseship culinary experience are rather antiquated. But the Michelin Guide director neatly captures a stereotype likely to deter many virgin cruise gastronomes from taking to the high seas.

Naret has “never been on a cruise and have no intention of doing so”, but he might want to reconsider his travel plans. On 21 March 2008, Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa – not a name synonymous with prawn cocktail and duck á l’orange – will travel onboard Crystal Symphony to oversee the launch of two new restaurants.

This is just the latest example of a big name chef teaming up with cruise operators; others include Todd English on Queen Mary 2, Marco Pierre White with P&O Cruises’ Ventura and Michel Roux acting as culinary and wine consultant for Celebrity Cruises. In fact, Crystal Cruises already enjoys established relationships with Italian food ambassador Piero Selvaggio and kitchen megastar Wolfgang Puck.

“The guests have changed and are now far more educated gastronomically,” claims Toni Neumeister, Crystal Cruises’ vice president, food and beverages. “It is no longer enough to follow trends, we have to lead them as well.”

With overall responsibility for the culinary programmes of Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, this is a crusade that Neumeister is leading from the front. “The cruise experience was not so focused on quality produce in the early days,” Neumeister says, reflecting on a quarter century observing its evolution. “Over the past 15 years we’ve seen a gradual understanding that a cruiseship is, in essence, a floating resort hotel, and standards have risen dramatically.”

QUALITY PRIORITY

One factor that can undermine the food at so many resort hotels is the decision to put choice before quality, a potential pitfall that Neumeister is not hesitant in addressing. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

“I always say that the waiter should write the menu as they get the most honest and direct feedback.”

“Choice is not enough,” he says. “The bottom line comes down to what you’re prepared to spend. When I think about the money we are pumping into our speciality restaurants, it keeps me awake at night. But the level of produce has got to match the level of commitment. Follow this through and you can cater for people of all tastes while offering a quality product.”

The older generation of guests still expects to see some favourite dishes on the menu. Neumeister insists that ‘classic Crystal dishes’ such as steak and grilled salmon are omnipresent, but the shifting demographic of passengers coming onboard increases the pressure to go beyond obvious crowd pleasers.

With guests now more likely to be in their mid-40s rather than 60s, some flair and imagination is essential: these baby boomers are more insistent upon seeing a ‘sense of place’ on their plate.

“That is something I feel passionate about,” says Neurmeister. “Yes, we have to cover all the bases, but we are also under an obligation to offer something that reflects the area the ship is visiting. The guests enjoy it, the chefs enjoy it and, besides all that, it makes perfect sense as we are buying all our produce in these areas.”

The sourcing of produce is a subject that Neumeister returns to time and again and is something in which he clearly takes enormous pride. “The challenges with catering at sea are not so different to the ones associated with cooking on dry land,” he says. “However, because you are sailing to new areas, it takes more time, investment and commitment to find and build relationships with the right suppliers. Doing so is integral and it is an area where I feel, Crystal really shines.”

PEOPLE FACTOR

Another challenge, although not one faced exclusively by the luxury cruise industry, is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining the right staff.

“The key is great frontline employees,” Neumeister explains. “I always say that the waiter should write the menu as they get the most honest and direct feedback.”

But is it difficult for Crystal to find people who are up to the job? “It’s a challenge for the luxury hotel business worldwide,” he responds. “The executive chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas told me that he needs 1,100 chefs for the year ahead and has no idea where to find them. Of course, when you have a name such as Robuchan, Keller or Ducasse behind you, it’s less of a challenge.”

While bringing a ‘name’ onboard helps recruitment, there must be a downside as well: does Neumeister fear a loss of autonomy?

“Crystal buys around 400,000 bottles of wine each year.”

“It will never work unless you understand the brain behind the concept – the food and service philosophy,” he says. “That can be pretty challenging and it is essential that the people you go into business with are coming from a similar place to you. I know I can work with Nobu, for example, because we both hold the same belief in constant evolution and continual improvement. The pressure works both ways.”

Crystal’s food does not revolve exclusively around celebrity chefs; Neumeister has established a trusted team around him and likes to think that the people running his kitchens enjoy a degree of control and the opportunity to stamp an identity on the food they serve.

“There’s the corporate chef, executive chefs and chefs de cuisine for each speciality restaurant,” he begins. “Somebody in my position should never fall into the trap of writing a menu and simply telling those further down the line to execute it. This is a team process. I’ve just been away with my executive pastry chefs for almost three weeks at a summit. I also invited some top chefs from the US and Europe and it was a great opportunity to work on some new ideas and creations. We were also able to get direct feedback from guests. All these stages must go into the evolution of a menu.”

CHANGING TASTES

This level of commitment does not stop with the food. Neumeister reveals that Crystal buys around 400,000 bottles of wine each year, with guests buying more wine than ever before. “Just as importantly, they are after genuine quality,” he says. This increase in demand reflects a general growth in the wine market in North America.

“The growth in gastro-tourism is providing cruise operators with opportunities beyond the dining room.”

“Around 85% of our guests are American,” Neumeister explains. “That is the market we have to follow and the dining experience has to be tailored accordingly. Eating out is far less formal in the US than it is in Europe, but the demand for quality at this end of the market is just as high.”

The growth in gastro-tourism is providing cruise operators with opportunities beyond the dining room. Celebrity Cruises’ Savour the Caribbean programme, now entering its third year, sees 16 master chefs invited onboard Millennium to provide recipes and cooking demonstrations that incorporate Caribbean culinary influences.

Holland America, as part of its Signature of Excellence concept, has introduced an array of culinary enrichment programmes with Culinary Arts Centres being retrofitted on all existing ships.

Again, Neumeister and his team have tried to stay ahead of the trend. The annual Crystal Food and Wine Festival is entering its 12th year, with leading chefs and wine experts preparing signature dishes for dinner menus, demonstrating cooking techniques and conducting tastings.

“With the shift in the age profile onboard and the restricted holiday time available to our American guests, you cannot afford for any element of the experience to be anything less than perfect,” explains Neumeister. “One of the first things a potential guest wants to know about is the cuisine. We need to execute and maintain a culinary philosophy and commitment.”

If Crystal can stay on course, perhaps Naret might be convinced to find his sea legs after all.