Cruise ship food. More lionised than Spartacus, more colourful than a Carmen Miranda lookalike convention. Praised to the skies at times, ridiculously over hyped at others, it remains the single issue vested with the highest expectations of any cruise experience, even today.
The legacy of gourmet food at sea comes largely from the era of the great transatlantic liners, when the floating palaces of Cunard, Italia and the French Line competed with each other to attract the cream of the available trade. It was a time when the movers, shakers and opinion makers of the modern world had no option but to travel by sea, and the lines fought tooth and nail to gain their high profile, high spending patronage.
A few factors need to be borne in mind here; firstly, those gargantuan feasts so lavishly created and fondly remembered were almost exclusively for the benefit of the first class passengers. It’s a largely unspoken truth that the bulk of the passengers travelling in second class and/or tourist never got to savour those culinary Olympian heights, never mind the crew. From the start, the best food afloat was reserved for the privileged few hundred in first, travelling in what amounted to a gated, segregated community.
Secondly, standards of food handling, storage, preparation and hygiene back in those days were a lot less stringent or regulated than would be acceptable now. Those old ships did not have the sophisticated cold storage and freezer equipment of modern ships.
Nor did they have the stabilisers, a vital prerequisite to providing a stable platform for food preparation, service and, indeed, consumption. Even back in the thirties, it was a standing joke that the enormous Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea in bad weather. Meanwhile, her great rival, the Normandie, offered no less than three hundred and twenty five separate items on her first class dinner menu each evening. It must have taken all four days of an Atlantic crossing just to read the damned thing.
So the dining experience was the highlight of the day, but even then- as now- the food itself, however wonderful, was just one ingredient in the consummate dining adventure. Things such as a beautifully decorated and lit dining room, immaculately laid tables and deft, attentive wait staff, were just as vital parts of the overall menu as the food. And, in those days, passengers invariably dressed in their finery for dinner most evenings.
The result is a nostalgically cherished, glamourous repast that has been passed down over the decades, enshrined in legend, and accepted as the norm. And, as Atlantic crossings gave way to cruising, woe betide the line that did not adhere with limpet like fanaticism to the treasured tenets of Atlantic liner dining, both real and imagined.
And so, the cruise ships stayed faithful to the tried and tested old meal formulas. Eight course dinners would routinely be followed within an hour or two by a midnight buffet the size of Manhattan; one every bit as colourful and diverse. The amount of wasted stuff thrown overboard each night gave every cruise ship it’s own following of devoted, discerning sharks.
But as the ships grew bigger and began to rival even the most outrageous of Las Vegas resorts, a whole new generation of passengers began expecting more in the way of dining options and flexibility.
And more there would be.
Mainstream cruising has always thrown up a curious dichotomy; the desire to appear as lavish and indulgent to passengers as possible while, at the same time, attempting to operate to economies of scale that constantly pare down actual per person food costs as far as possible. And, while modern technology does make this illusion appear real, these two diverse factors will always collide, like duelling tectonic plates
And the cruise lines’ desire to siphon additional revenue from every passenger pocket led to what is now a virtual tsunami of extra tariff, speciality restaurants, offering individually prepared options such as French, Italian and Japanese, in a more intimate environment, for a nominal extra charge. These usually also come with significantly upgraded service.
Hand in hand with this came the provision of an almost round the clock buffet service, including at dinner time. This was in response to passengers who did not want to dress up in the evening to enjoy the still more formal, sit down, largely similar fare enjoyed in the main dining room (s) down below.
The flood of new passengers that cruising has attracted are largely appreciative of these new venues. Next was a logical freeing up of the set dining times, a charge led by Norwegian Cruise Line, with it’s Freestyle Dining.
This allowed passengers to turn up at the main dining room at a time of their choice between the standard evening hours of 5.30- 9.30. Other lines were initially sceptical, but Freestyle was such a runaway success that most of the mainstream big lines now offer a version of it. Like it or loathe it, flexible dining is here to stay.
And, of course, not everybody does like it.
Some passengers complain that the food quality and service in the main dining rooms is often dumbed down, in an attempt to get passengers to upgrade to the extra charge speciality venues. If so, this is an incredibly short sighted approach that will ultimately deter increasing numbers of passengers. But there is no question that all mainstream lines have been instigating cutbacks in almost every area practicable since the watershed of 9/11. What will determine future passenger loyalty is how far those changes are perceived to have gone and, as in so many other things, that perception will vary with each individual.
The new, flexible dining times, plus the plethora of potential new venues, also marked the end for the nightly midnight buffet, now far more sensibly- and cost effectively- replaced with late night snacks, such as pizza and hot chicken wings, brought around the late night venues such as the disco, piano bar, and the casino. Colourful but impractical, the buffet was quietly lowered over the side and cast adrift.
So, what about the on board food quality itself? For years, the cruise lines created hugely unrealistic expectations about their onboard product via their advertising literature, raising it to the heroic levels of the old ocean liners. Creative to be sure, but nowhere near being consistently deliverable.
Even with the best will in the world, the most creative of chefs cannot provide gourmet food for the more than three thousand passengers on a modern cruise ship each week. The budgetary constraints already mentioned lead to the bulk purpose of everything from eggs to escargot. And, humanity and its whims being what they are, it is impossible within the time constraints on offer to sculpture each individual dish with true, one to one, lavish care and affection. You will never please all of the people a hundred per cent, one hundred per cent of the time.
Yet the food that is on offer is, in general, so varied, plentiful and easily accessible that it still makes the modern mainstream cruise experience truly the best value of all holidays, with a quality, quantity and diversity of taste that is truly mind boggling. No land based resort comes anywhere near to offering the vast, bountiful largesse of a modern cruise ship.
If gourmet food is your goal, then you can upgrade to one of the smaller, more service oriented ultra luxury ships, where the standards, cuisine and service rise hand in hand with the prices charged for the product. With numbers to cater for in the hundreds rather than the thousands, several of these ships really do offer an overall experience that could be called ‘gourmet’ dining.
One thing is for sure; no one ever starves on any cruise. Period.