The best food afloat?

I often get asked which is the best ship afloat, in terms of its food. I would love to be able to give a simple answer and award a prize. However, after reviewing my experiences afloat, communicating with ITN readers and interviewing seagoing chefs, I don’t think the answer is that easy.

There are so many variables and obstacles, and vessels change so rapidly, that it is probably impossible to identify one ship or one line. Yes, there are surveys and polls on food afloat, but often the scores are so close, the respondents (who are nonrandomly selected) are so few and what survey researchers call the “confidence interval” (or margin of error) is so large that the surveys are not statistically valid. Here’s my review of this difficult but fascinating topic.

Cooking afloat is tough

Consider first the many obstacles to great cooking at sea compared to cooking at a fine restaurant ashore.

The best restaurants ashore often build each night’s menu around what is available, very fresh and great looking in the market that morning. Ships can’t do that; they must freeze or store items for long periods.

Fine restaurants ashore don’t have to produce the volume of meals that most ships do.

Most passengers afloat are not willing to spend $100-plus per person per dinner for many nights at sea, while they might splurge occasionally on shore.

In the food world, as in most fields of human endeavor, there are very few geniuses. Getting a genius to go to sea and live in a small cabin for a long time is difficult.

A great chef must not only have an exquisite palate, he/she must be a whiz at organization, management, planning, logistics, finance, business, marketing, personnel administration and, of course, menu and restaurant conceptualization. How many artists do you know who are also great businessmen?

The required range of skills is enormous, and, again, getting such a multitalented person to give up life ashore is problematic. This is true for the top person as well as for all of the specialized chefs and assistants.

The motion of the ocean!

Classes of food

A few ITN readers have told me that “all the food on cruise ships is wonderful.” I respectfully but vigorously disagree. I think there are various classes of food and service quality afloat, as follows:

The bottom of the barrel — In this category is food aboard most vessels homeported in the former Soviet Union or other developing countries, now usually reformatted as adventure cruisers. From a passenger aboard one such exploration vessel, this illustrative interview — “The Russian waitress always brought around a bowl of food but held it overhead so we couldn’t see it. We had to pick sight unseen, and usually got potatoes and mystery meat.”

Lower middle — This includes the “family style” food served aboard many freighters and tall ships. It is hearty and fairly good, but no one claims it is distinguished. This food is similar to that in a family-style cafeteria ashore.

Middle — This is what you’ll find on Western, budget cruise ships. Here the emphasis is on volume and occasional showy presentation. These ships are equivalent to medium-grade chain restaurants ashore.

Upper middle — This is the level that most well-regarded, brand-name Western cruise ships have reached. The food is consistently very good, at the level of good chains and many good individual restaurants ashore. And there are occasional flairs of real excellence in particular dishes or for periods of time.

Exceptional — This is very rare ashore and even more difficult to find at sea. My personal gold standard for food is The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, 100 miles west of Washington, D.C. This is probably the best restaurant in the East and perhaps in the U.S. Finding this sort of consistent excellence in service and quality at sea is almost impossible, for all the reasons mentioned earlier.

(At the Inn, an internationally recognized genius, Patrick O’Connell, personally oversees the preparation of every dish. Believe it or not, The Inn has a rating system whereby each guest is quietly rated on a 10-point “happiness scale” as he enters and he is continuously rated throughout dinner by all the attending staff. The goal is to use the terrific food and perfect service to take each guest, no matter how grumpy, up to a 9 or 10 by the end of the meal!)

Of course, cruise ship operators are smart, they are in a competitive market and they are always working to improve. One recent positive approach has been to reduce the ridiculous volume of food (the midnight buffet, for example) and zero in on quality instead. This ties in with the trend toward healthier eating, a trend now often reflected in progressive cruise lines’ advertising.

Another interesting approach many lines are now using aboard large ships is to create small specialty restaurants linked to well-known chefs ashore. The famous chefs review the menus (but do not generally spend much time on board) and help conceptualize the entire restaurant. It is hoped that this will provide that essential spark of genius, but I would argue that physical presence is vital to ensure really high quality.

I have sailed on cruises of one well-regarded line three times, but the only time that I thought the food consistently reached the level of “exceptional” was when a well-known young chef was on board. He was clearly trying hard to build his reputation so he could start his own restaurant in Italy. All his effort and attention to detail showed in the terrific food.

Two common mistakes made by some chefs afloat (and ashore) are focusing on presentation at the expense of taste and trying to combine too many tastes. I prefer a simple dish with one or two really vibrant flavors rather than an artsy-looking dish with mediocre or overly complex tastes.

What to do?

So what are you to do? Well, frankly, if you like most of the food in chain and good individual restaurants ashore in the U.S., you will be delighted with almost any brand-name, upper- to high-end Western cruise ship. You probably will be very pleased with the taste, choice, presentation and service.

But if you are very discriminating (for example, if you live in New Orleans or France and regularly eat at highly rated restaurants or you travel widely in search of exceptional food), then satisfying your palate at sea will be tougher. You will need to use some or all of the following techniques.

Pick a high-end cruise line with a good, recent reputation for excellent food quality. You will have to pay more, but you’ll be happier. My current recommendations include Cunard Line, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and SeaDream Yacht Club, based on experience, interviews with passengers and reviewing the travel and food press.

Once on board, seek out demonstration, high-end or other small restaurants where a well-regarded and highly motivated individual chef is paying attention to each entrée. Some lines may charge an extra fee for this — it is probably worth it.

At your chosen venue, don’t order the specialty of the night; there are probably 20 of those dishes already prepared that have been sitting for 40 minutes, getting stale. Instead, order something unusual and difficult that will require individual attention by the top chef. Be prepared to wait a little longer than usual.

Give each small venue two chances, and then if you’re not satisfied, move on to another location on board.

If sitting and waiting for service drives you crazy (like it does me), go to the breakfast and lunch buffets which most ships now have. Save your fine dining adventures for dinner.

Ask the waiter, maître d’hotel or preferably the chef himself for advice. Say you are looking to taste his/her best dish for that night and ask for a recommendation. If the chef cares about his customers, and he should, he’ll be delighted to talk to you.

Don’t expect a fabulous dish for every single course. Appreciate the good and very good dishes as well as the occasional truly brilliant dish that you will remember and savor for years.

As Julia Child would say, “Bon appétit!”

Voice an opinion

Disagree? Comments? Send me an e-mail or mail a letter c/o ITN.