The Michelin-star liners: How cruising got a taste for haute cuisine

Thomas Bywater looks at how the high seas fell in love with haute cuisine.

It wasn’t that long ago people went to sea to see the world. The silver service and cruise club classics such as prawn cocktail and lobster bisque were just there to sweeten the deal. Now, increasingly, passengers are going to sea to eat.

Whereas the mainland is awash with restaurant closures, the safest place to open a fine-dining restaurant is at sea.

Cruisemarketwatch.com reported an annual passengers growth of almost 7 per cent worldwide last year — and this shows no sign of slowing.

Royal Caribbean’s liners ferried nearly 6 million hungry passengers on their holidays in 2017.

With a captive dinner party more populous than New Zealand, this is about more than making sure you take enough spuds to sea.

Quality as well as quantity are steering factors. In the search to provide unique dining experiences at sea, cruise ships are turning to the Michelin Guide as their guiding star.

Cruise liners are taking fine dining to an industrial scale.

Chef Cornelius Gallagher is to open 29 restaurants on Royal Caribbean ships this year. Not even Las Vegas hotels can do those numbers.

Kiwis might not have heard of the chef yet but by December he’ll have opened as many restaurants as Gordon Ramsay.

Cruise liners have become taste-makers.

At a time when the latest fashion is to source food as fresh and as locally as possible, the liners are leading the trend.

Wherever a ship is heading, there’s sure to be an advance party of executive chefs, on the docks and in the markets, taste testing in preparation for the imminent arrival of colossal dining car. They are looking for the highest quality ingredients and provisioning perishables in astronomical quantities.

One of the most important ingredients for any ship to load up on is a celebrity chef partnership.

Along with seven tonnes of potatoes and 2000l of icecream, names of celebrity chefs are stocked to give their on-board restaurants the flavour of Michelin-starred restaurants.

The number of multi-starred chefs now signed to ships is remarkable.

What’s even more remarkable is that Michelin has never set foot on a cruise ship.

The Michelin Guide was written to give prominence to regional restaurants in France, literally to put them “on the map”; but this seems rather redundant at sea.

Although, perhaps the more important factor in not allocating a star to a floating restaurant is the Gallic aversion to change. It’s simply not done. This doesn’t seem to bother the cruise ships a jot. Instead liners are hoovering up Michelin chefs from on shore. Like the pirate ships of yore, tapping away world famous chefs into the galleys as if they were young lads in seaside towns.

And they’ve come away with big names such as Thomas Keller, the seven-starred Napa Valley restaurateur, who advises the high-end Seabourn cruise line.

The cruise lines have the talent, the ingredients and the restaurants — even if they may never garner their own stars.

It seems the old guard of hospitality are being left high and dry while the world’s top chefs and passengers are increasingly heading to the high seas in search of unique dining experiences.

MICHELIN STARS AT SEA

Thomas Keller ******* — Seabourn Cruise Line

Keller’s constellation includes the Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry

Marco-Pierre White *** ( returned) — P&O Cruises
The British chef famously threw away his stars back in the 90s, such a buccaneering
attitude will do well at sea

Arnaud Lallement *** — Disney Cruise Line
There’s nothing Mickey Mouse about the chef’s restaurant L’Assiette Champenoise in Reims

Curtis Stone *** — Princess Cruises
Stone, of Chevre d’Or, on the French Riviera, freshened up the cruise line’s offering with the introduction of his Share restaurants

Jonnie Boer *** — Holland America Line
The Controversial Dutch chef was brought in to add a bit of bite
to the Holland America menu

Jean-Pierre Vigato ** — Paul Gauguin
Parisian chef of Apicius adds a touch of classical dining to Paul Gauguin liners.

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