Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What is a Luxury Cruise Experience? - Part III: Cuisine - A Realistic Perspective

In this third part to my series on "What is a Luxury Cruise Experience" (do you think I am going somewhere with this???), I want to talk about food. Not just what it is, but how it is and where it is.

First, let me get this out in the open. Luxury cuisine is not based upon what you, personally, like. That is a personal preference. For exampled:

1. If you don't like fish, the fact that fish is served does not exclude the cuisine from being luxurious.

2. I love pork ribs and, locally, I am famous for them. (I will be out in the snow and cold Sunday cooking ribs for my friend's Super Bowl party...They are my admission ticket!). I could probably write I book on how to cook them and how to eat them, but however much my sitting with a nice cold beer and a few large ribs with barbeque sauce and pork fat on my face, my napkin and my table, may be "decadent" (or just "great"), it is just not "luxurious".

Second, the fact is that very few people actually want a luxurious culinary experience for the entirety of their cruise...especially longer ones. If your stretch pants don't rip (sorry for the visual!), your big toes will be crying out in pain from gout. There are times when a poached egg with whole wheat toast and a cup of coffee,or a simple hamburger, are all that you want.

Third, there is a difference between "food" and "cuisine". A frozen block of ground meat cooked and presented in a tray is a hamburger. Fresh aged ground Wagyu beef with sautéed onions, olive oil and a touch of Roquefort cheese on brioche is cuisine. (Again, it doesn't matter which you prefer, we are simply defining things here.) A huge T-bone steak presented on a plate with A1 sauce is not cuisine. It may, for some, be decadent, but it is not "cuisine". Alas, it may also be considered to be a luxury item, but it is not cuisine. Cuisine is a Filet Mignon with foie gras that cuts with a fork and has a richness that just a small portion more than satiates your palate and your hunger.

With those three prefaces, over the internet if there is a topic that can raise one's cruise rancor (other than dress codes) it is whether the food/cuisine is good. I may ruffle some feathers here (why should today be different), but whether it is food or cuisine, there are folks that are so hung up or focused on whether they are "luxury" cruisers or if they are on "luxury" cruise lines.

For example, there is a rather well known, boisterous and bullying Regent cheerleader who frequents quite a few message boards. A few days ago he posted, "the "majority" of the cruisers on Regent are working stiffs or retired working stiffs. Often in senior management but I have met a number of school teachers, librarians, post masters, and fellow engineers. Most of us cruise Regent because we do think it is a great value. I do not like paying more than the lowest category cabin; even if I have to take a guarantee. " Add this to the fact that demographically, Regent's biggest draw is from central and Midwestern states, the palate and standards are markedly different than those demographically from New York, Los Angeles/San Francisco or any European country. (Crystal Cruises, for example, has a very significant West Coast demographic.  I am just stating facts here.)

While he is well entitled to his opinion as to how well he enjoys this food (and I can respect that), I believe it is a fair statement to say that while I am sure there are Midwest "working stiffs" that enjoy caviar and champagne or truffle-infused whatever, the vast majority are going to be more attracted to a "damn good steak" and perceive a huge hunk of meat falling over a plate to be "luxury". My educated guess is that he is not going to pay for an exceptional wine (he buys only the least expensive accommodation and is willing to compromise in order to do so) nor is his palate going to have experience when it comes to the subtitles that make "cuisine" something other than "food".

That is fine, but that is NOT my market; nor the market for the vast majority of the luxury cruising public. And, and this is where the "food wars" start, one simply cannot take the comment of someone from whom you do not know their background who says, "I just sailed on Regent and the food was as good as it was on Seabourn." You have to ask yourself, "Is that person speaking from the same perspective as I am?"

While another topic, it is related: Those that love the fact that Regent's basic tours are included in the price and they take many of them are simply coming from a different perspective than the vast majority of true luxury cruisers do not take group tours in every port. I, in fact, work very hard to make sure my clients "travel" and "see stuff". Some of the most culturally enlightening experiences...and, of course, the most enjoyable...are when I simply explore the port or a nearby town on my own or in a small group. While group tours may be for some, it most definitely is a less than personalized, luxury, experience.

Just as an example, for some the following two example of buffets will seem identical, but to others it will clearly show the difference between food versus cuisine:


Regent Seven Seas Voyager Buffet

Seabourn Odyssey Buffet

One thing I will not get into is dueling menus.  Aside from the fact that I am totally baffled by the practice of using heretofore unknown adjectives, nouns and verbs to describe a dish, I am confident that some of the menu descriptions on mass market lines equals or exceeds those on luxury lines. 

What I will get into is the quality of the items and the techniques used to prepare and present the dishes.  For something to be "cuisine" the ingredients (within reason) must be fresh and high quality.  It doesn't matter if it is the breadsticks or croissants or the vegetables, if it can be fresh it must.  Certain claimed luxury lines have a history of taking liberties with this. 

Similarly, there is a recent outcry that some of the mass market lines are charging extra to have a higher quality steak served in the main restaurant rather than having to pay to dine in the specialty restaurants.  Again, there is a history here too with supposed luxury lines saving the higher quality meats, etc. for their specialty restaurants.  For a luxury cruiser, it better not make a difference where you dine.  You want the best "cuisine" every time...while the venue alters the decor, menu and style, it better not cause the main dining venues to be second rate.

Cuisine means, in so many ways, the little touches.  For example, in November I was on the Seabourn Odyssey and my Food & Wine group was given a private galley tour.  We were, of course, presented with glasses of champagne and servings of caviar.  But it was not "just" caviar; it was presented on a reconstructed egg:


I have also seen too many dishes that are just stacks of stuff with sauce around them, on them, over them, through them.  That does not define cuisine. 

My favorite "faux cuisine" of late is the use of squirt bottles.  Just because someone can make squiggly lines on a plate, it does not make it cuisine...or even tasty.  In fact, far too many times the liquid squirted on the plate either has no taste or the wrong taste, but was put there for solely for looks.

Cuisine does not need to, in fact, should not, fill a plate, but fill your eyes and your senses.  Try this, for example:  Pecorino Va d'Orcia as Ravioli, Shaved and Foam with Black Truffle


(By the way, did you notice you could actually understand what the heck was being served?!)

I cannot write this without speaking of the Hot Rocks on Silversea.  It is a fun event where you are given a block of hot lava rock and a partially cooked oversized piece of meat which you finish cooking yourself. 

It may be decadent, it may (for some) be luxury, but it is not to my mind "cuisine".  (Personally I just don't get it...but again it is only one person's opinion.)

So with that, when you read or listen to people tell you how wonderful the food is, you must consider from where the person comes from (literally and experientially) because his idea of great food just might be a huge disappointment to you.  And, to be sure, that goes both ways.  My love of elegant small dishes, truffles and caviar can be as much a turnoff to someone as the giant slab of meat is to me...and, remember, I love ribs!

And to make that point, I recently sailed on the Celebrity Century and had an truly wonderful meal in its specialty restaurant, Murano.  It was as good as anything I have had on any of the luxury lines (for that type of meal).  One of my dear friends hated it.  But, to be sure, he was thrilled that Celebrity had truly authentic meat pies and pasties.  He was in heaven eating British food.  I was in heaven dining on fine cuisine.

Whose opinion would you really rely upon when wondering if the cuisine on one line was as good as on another?  It depends...doesn't it.  But knowing who you are relying upon is critical.

I have been receiving quite a number of emails asking me if I actually book cruises or if I would consider booking their cruises or if I would consider booking cruises on other than luxury cruise lines. The answer to all three questions is: YES. You can email me at eric@goldringtravel.com  or call me at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or internationally on +1 732 383-7398 or UK  on +44 20 8133 3450 or Australia on +61 7 3102 4685.