In just ten years AIDA has become one of Europe’s leading cruise providers, an achievement that is in no small part due to its quality cuisine. The man in charge of pleasing the palates of the company’s thousands of passengers each year is senior vice president Michael Ungerer, who has been with AIDA since 1997.

According to Ungerer, culinary success is down to the perfect combination of quality, variety and, above all, emotions. “It’s not enough just to have the best service and quality; you need to go beyond that and create an emotional product,” he says. “It’s the way we approach cuisine and get people involved that makes it an emotional experience and keeps people coming back.”

AIDA, part of the Carnival Group and based in Rostock in Germany, has four ships in service, AIDAcara, AIDAvita, AIDAaura and AIDAblu. Three new ships, at a cost of €315m each, are due to enter service during the next three years. They will be able to cater for 2,000 guests in several restaurants, including a new Culinarium that offers a “culinary voyage through the kitchens of the world”. The expansion of the fleet will consolidate AIDA’s position as the undisputed market leader in Germany. It caters mainly for German, Austrian and Swiss guests with cruises around Europe, the Caribbean and Central America.

“The average age of the typical AIDA passenger is 42 years, and they expect nothing but the best.”

AIDA was founded in 1996 when tour operator Seetours and shipping company DSR joined forces. Only a decade later, it is celebrating its most successful year to date, with over 233,000 passengers, creating sales of €375m in 2005. It boasts a 35% share of the German cruise sector and an 8% share of the European market.

The average age of the typical AIDA passenger is 42 years, and they expect nothing but the best, says Ungerer.

However, the company does not adhere to the cruise traditions of class restaurants – strict dress codes, fixed seating or compulsory tips – to create its high standards. Instead it encourages a ‘home from home’ atmosphere.

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

While Germany’s cuisine is generally not heralded as one of the best in the world,
AIDA guests expect and enjoy a taste of home, whether their ship is heading for Central America, the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

“Our guests expect a large variety of authentic dishes of the places they are visiting, but they also like some of the familiar cooking they get at home,” Ungerer says. “Germans like meat dishes, homemade breads and cheeses. So, for example, one evening we will have a cheese station that has over 100 different cheeses with chefs to explain the different varieties.” Each AIDA ship has several restaurants that offer an extensive variety of quality cooking from round the world.

These range from German and typical Mediterranean to sushi and local specialities from the cruise destinations. The key, according to Ungerer, is to offer an interactive experience rather than just a meal. The majority of the restaurants, which are open to all guests on an inclusive basis, operate in a buffet style, with unlimited house wine included.

MORE THAN JUST A BUFFET

“The word ‘buffet’ doesn’t really do our style justice because we have a totally fresh approach to the concept,” says Ungerer. “Our buffet is similar to a market where guests can pick and choose their meal, interact with the cooks and see their food freshly prepared and cooked in front of them – it is entertaining and educational. It is here where the emotions are created, with the guests composing their meal from a menu in front of them – we want our guests to feel they are part of the process.”

“Our buffet is not somewhere where you just pick up a tray and put plates on it; it’s an interactive experience and we want to encourage people to spend hours over a meal and develop a different atmosphere.”

A typical AIDA buffet-style restaurant will offer a choice of six starters, two soups, four fish dishes, six meat dishes and six desserts each night, in addition to vegetarian options. A seven-day cruise will also typically have 13 themed evenings, with a farewell dinner of lobster and Kaiserschmarrn (cut up sugared pancake with raisins). Ungerer has also introduced poolside buffets, such as American evenings where different cuts of meat are carved and cooked in the open or a whole tuna is filleted and prepared.

Other new features introduced by Ungerer since he took the helm include authentic dishes from the ports of call and award-winning à la carte restaurants.

“A typical AIDA buffet-style restaurant will offer a choice of six starters, two soups, four fish dishes, six meat dishes and six desserts each night.”

“We try to provide dishes that are as authentic as possible, so we visit local producers in port and shop at the markets,” he explains. “We even have excursion programmes where the guests go ashore with the chefs, choose the produce and have it cooked on the ship as an à la carte experience on their return.”

Health-conscious cruisers are also catered for by the AIDAfit menu, which is based on healthy Mediterranean dishes containing fish, lean meat, olive oil, fruit, vegetables and herbs. Vegetarians are not forgotten, and particular diets, such as non-dairy, are welcome with a little advance warning to the chefs. Children have their own menu with smaller portions, as well as their own dining area.

AIDAblu is a perfect example of the emphasis that AIDA places on choice and the international dining experience. On board, guests can partake of seasonal and regional delicacies at the Markt Restaurant, or Japanese treats in the Sushi Bar, eat barbecued food or American breakfasts round the clock in the California Grill, live it up Caribbean-style in the Buena Vista Restaurant or spice it up in the Asia Bistro. For à la carte connoisseurs, there is a choice of classical service in the Bella Donna Restaurant, or exclusive Italian gourmet in the Rossini Restaurant. For any taste not yet catered for, there are fine chocolates, pastries and cakes in the Caffee Bar – the first on-board cake shop.

FORKS, KNIVES AND POINTS

The company’s leading à la carte restaurant, Rossini, is its pride and joy. It has been awarded a toque, 14 points and three knives and forks in the Gault Millau Guide – a renowned restaurant and hotel guide. It was also heralded as Ship Restaurant of 2004 in the Aral Schlemmer Atlas and received four cooking spoons.

Of 3,342 restaurants tested in Germany, only 34 received such a high level of distinction. In addition, the two buffet restaurants, Markt and Buena Vista, gained a toque, 14 points and two knives and forks. An anonymous tester for the guide described AIDAblu as “the most intelligently managed cruiseship”.

Ungerer responds: “It is a compliment to our 100 chefs, bakers, pastry-cooks and kitchen assistants, but especially to head chef Gunter Kroak who was voted one of the top 50 cooks in Germany.”

Also available in the à la carte restaurants is a more extensive wine list, offering a choice of about 60 wines from round the world. “Overall our wine list is limited because in the buffet restaurants the wine is inclusive and we serve table wines that are usually Portuguese or Italian,” says Ungerer. “However, the à la carte restaurants, which make up about 20% of the capacity and cost extra, have a larger selection. These are also available in the bars.

“On the whole”, he adds, “guests have not shown an interest in a wider selection of wines in the main restaurants, but it is something to be considered for the future.”

Looking towards the future is a large part of Ungerer’s job. He focuses the food and beverage side on the club-resort style.

PEOPLE POWER

A key to his success and the growth of the company are the skills and expertise of the chefs and service staff. The restaurants are directed from the shore by corporate executive chef Frank Meissner with executive chefs on each ship who all play a key role in planning the cuisine. “We employ some of the best chefs in Germany who in turn attract high-quality recruits who want to work with them,” says Ungerer. “We also bring in celebrity television chefs who come on board, interact with our chefs and they exchange ideas. They are also very popular with guests.”

AIDA also works with a number of restaurants on the shore and has developed an exchange programme for its chef and staff, which in turn generates interest in the cruises.

“We have chefs who work on the shore with Michelin-starred chefs, and they gain invaluable experience and ideas which they bring back on board,” says Ungerer.

“The company’s leading à la carte restaurant, Rossini, is its pride and joy.”

Assessment centres are also used to recruit staff. “Staff are extremely important and we place a big emphasis on having properly trained people with several years’ experience,” he comments. “Our service staff are employed through the assessment centres, where they have to prove what they are able to do, as well as going through the standard interview.”

AIDA is keen to retain staff and encourages career progression, aiming to fill its managerial positions by promoting from within as much as possible. The company also works with culinary institutions and schools to identify promising students and recruit them when they graduate.

KEEPING FRESH

With an eye to the unusual, a recent appointment included a dedicated food carver, who can also turn his hand to sculpting ice figures. However, culinary skills are wasted without the highest quality ingredients, and AIDA, like all cruise companies, faces the challenge of feeding thousands of people while at sea.

In recent years, the company has brought in atmospheric containers, which use nitrogen to keep fruit and vegetables fresh. The produce is sourced predominantly in European markets and supplemented with produce from local markets en route when prices are favourable and goods available.

During a one-week cruise the crew and passengers will eat their way through more than 6,000kg of fruit, 7,500kg of fresh vegetables, 6,000kg of meat, more than 5,000kg of seafood, including 600 lobsters, nearly 20,000 eggs, 4,000 litres of milk, 400 litres of yoghurt and over 8,000 litres of red and white wine.

Key to catering at sea, according to AIDA, is the good time management, planning, creativity and leadership of the chefs. “The perfect recipe for a perfect cruise,” adds Ungerer, who rates cuisine as one of the key features to success, alongside itinerary and entertainment. He believes AIDA has cracked all three.

MARKET FOCUS

“We have a high rate of repeat visitors – about a third – and have seen steady growth in the cruise industry, which is popular in Germany and has outpaced the tourism sector,” says Ungerer. “The industry declined after September 11, but it has climbed back and is still improving.”

The company intends to continue servicing its niche area. “We don’t see any need to go beyond the German-speaking market,” he comments. “With the Austrians and Swiss there is a market of over 100 million people waiting to take our cruises.”

With such a wide range of restaurants and food options for this segment, the only question remaining is where should AIDA guests start? “I can’t choose a favourite restaurant, I like them all,” says Ungerer. “I just have one favourite for every day of the week.”