As far as food is concerned, a cruise passenger in 2008 is spoilt for choice – will it be Korean barbeque or pizza? Enchiladas or Tandoori grill? New York-style deli sandwiches anyone? As competition increases, the pressure to impress with food and drink has become the order of the day.

Presentation, quality and variety have all been spruced up, so now, instead of being limited to the traditional assigned seating and cruise ship fare, passengers can conceivably eat cuisine from a different region of the globe at every sitting.

The move away from midnight buffets and Beef Wellington has long since been in motion, but with megaships looming on the horizon, the capacity for gastronomic delight increases. Frank Weber, director of food and beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International, reckons the shift is down to higher expectations from increasingly savvy passengers who would like to see that awareness reflected on their plates.

"Dining in general has changed and consumers are just more educated about food, cooking and nutrition," says Weber. "The exposure to food in the media means that people have a much better understanding of what is quality and what is not."

It is important for cruise lines to keep up with what is happening on land, he says, or else they run the risk of losing out on business. "In the cruise industry, we’re competing on the global holiday market so we not only compete against other cruise lines but also other holiday destinations. So naturally, the focus on offering comparative offerings on our ships is just a natural evolution," he says.

To keep on top of things, cruise operators are asking guests what they want and what their favourite restaurants are in high-profile destinations such as Miami and Las Vegas – and then following suit. As one would expect, the variety of what will be available on Genesis-class ships is even greater than the offerings on the Freedom of the Seas.

Plans for over 15 restaurants have already been unveiled – with even more to come over time. For passengers, this means access to a dizzying array of ethnic food, traditional chop houses, seafood shacks, American-style diners, vintage wine bars, sushi bars and so on.

According to guest feedback, having a wide choice of where and when to eat is exactly what the modern cruiser is after. In addition to variety, health and nutrition are also beginning to play key roles in food operation, says Weber.

As a result, Royal Caribbean instituted its "Vitality Programme" in 2007, offering healthier cooking techniques, more vegetables, lower sodium and calorie levels and a "no trans fat policy" across all ships. This is a common trend across all cruise lines, in fact.

"There is more awareness of what you put into your body and how it affects your life and health," Weber adds. "People are looking for more conscious eating – not diets. We took a good look at fad diets such as Atkins and The Zone and determined that we shouldn’t associate ourselves with them.

These diets come and go, instead we focus on healthy eating options for those who require them." But many passengers still want to don their furs and diamonds and live out their Love Boat fantasies in a traditional, formal setting. "That is why it is imperative to still offer that experience as well as the more inventive cuisine and casual dining opportunities," Weber adds.

Main dining room attendance does not usually exceed 75%, so that means 25% are eating elsewhere – and some nights even more. "Choice is really the key," he says. "We still have our main rooms because traditional cruisers really appreciate the assigned seating and formal dining setting, but there is a new generation that are looking for a different experience and more flexibility."

Plate expectations

Peter Leypold, corporate executive chef for Carnival, agrees that exposure to celebrity chefs has upped the ante on cruise ships.

"With so much cooking going on on TV, people are becoming a lot more educated about what’s out there. Obviously, there is greater demand. On the ship, since you’ve already paid for the food, you can try anything and if you don’t like it, you can try something else," he says.

All of this choice and flexibility begs the question – how do the cruise lines pull it off? No matter how enormous the ship, there are still finite limitations and challenges to delivering what passengers now expect. If the kitchen runs out of Kobe beef, it is difficult to run out and get more. Leypold says that compromises must be made on certain fronts – such as using electric appliances for some foods instead of the traditional open flame. "We can only use electricity, so you need to source equipment that can do the job almost as well."

Another hurdle, says Leypold, is training staff to be able to cook the various ethnic cuisines to an excellent standard. Just because you want to call it Japanese food doesn’t magically make it Japanese," he says. "You have to make it look and taste like Japanese. Training is a key in everything we do, not only in cooking ethnic food but in all the cooking."

What else is necessary to make the endless parade of food possible? For starters, fresh, consistently high-quality products need to be available worldwide. Royal Caribbean transports containers to all of its ships and sources fresh, local food in each port. The rest is down to efficient equipment and organisation. Presumably, if ships veer away from the large volume of the main dining room concept to smaller, individual restaurants, efficiency is not as easy to come by.

Kitchens on board Freedom-class ships use large, combination ovens from Alto-Shaam that allow for different applications such as steaming and baking. "It’s normal operational stuff," says Weber. "It’s getting more complex than it was maybe 15 years ago – but really, each venue operates independently. There is a process that happens within each area – they are operated like an independent restaurant."

Well, almost. All cooking happens in individual kitchens, but certain prep items come from central areas that all the restaurants requisition from – such as a bakery, a butcher or a fish prep room.

"There are certain things that are centralised, that make sense to be centralised, but the rest is all set up to operate individually," says Weber.

On smaller, more specialised lines – Silversea Cruises in Monaco, for example – efficiency may not pose as much of a challenge but providing food that would "wow" the choosiest of punters certainly is. Silversea’s Italian restaurant, La Terrazza, serves recipes from various Italian regions such as Tuscany, Piemonte, Puglia or Sicily.

The main restaurant can accommodate 250 guests – a meagre number by Carnival or Royal Caribbean standards – and its most exclusive restaurant seats only 15 passengers. Salah Chetbi, Silversea’s fleet food and beverage director, says high numbers may compromise the food.

"In order to serve à la carte, you’ve got to minimise numbers. We’re after quality, not quantity," he says. Even operating on a smaller scale than competitors, Chetbi says that Silversea uses over 3,000 vendors around the world, which provides the main challenge.

"Our goal is to maintain the same standard all year long, but if something doesn’t arrive due to weather or a strike, you need to rethink things. If you need a supply of tenderloin US beef but you are in Dubai, you may have a problem on your hands," he says.

As for other operators, Chetbi says it is important to keep abreast of all the latest innovations in equipment as it can make or break the customer experience. "Demands are very high and expectations are very high," says Chetbi. Whatever type of cruise one decides to take, be it a megaship or a boutique ship, dining standards are going up, he says.

"Cruise ship food used to be meat and vegetables on the side, with the same key lime pie, all the time," he jokes. "Now we have to be much more artistic – to make it simple but with top luxury. A canapé served in a Cornetto glass.

That is the direction things are going." That is, of course, unless you’d rather just drop in for a quick pizza, burger or curry. As ever, the choice is yours.