Perfecting the dining experience at sea

Galleys and eateries are an essential ingredient in perfecting the onboard dining experience. Jacqui Griffiths asks operators how they surprise and delight passengers

Perfecting the dining experience at sea
Virgin Voyages' Pink Agave restaurant is designed to evoke the vibrant streets of Mexico City

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Spring/Summer 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Onboard dining has become a decisive differentiator for operators because guests, who have easy access to different cuisines from around the world on land, expect the same experiences onboard ships. The spaces where meals are prepared and consumed play a central role in perfecting that dining experience.

With space at a premium, galley design is critical to ensuring that guests have a positive dining experience that exceeds their expectations. “It’s important that the galley and other food storage, production and preparation areas are designed as efficiently as possible, while also being able to cope with the volume and demand of the menus,” says Mark Zeller, vice president of US Hotel Operations at MSC Cruises. “Knowing some of the challenges of the galley space, we’re also becoming more creative in the way we execute the menus and ensure we’re using the latest technology and equipment that is multifunctional.”

It’s critically important that the galley is designed to meet various dietary needs, including food allergies. “It is becoming essential to have an allergy-free kitchen built within the galley where dedicated cooks can prepare specific foods that do not contain the typical allergens – such as nuts, gluten and dairy – and other dietary-required foods can be prepared in a closed off and safe environment,” says Zeller.

At MSC Cruises, designing galleys and restaurants starts with a simple question. “Our first question is, what do we want to do here?” says Zeller. “We devise the concept and then design the restaurant and galley around this concept in ambience, décor, equipment, functionality and flows while also keeping the mandatory standards of public health in mind. From the guests’ point of view, their dining experience needs to be all-immersive, regardless of whether it is a paid-for restaurant or complimentary.”

Time and changing demands must also be taken in to account. “When designing the galley, we must also consider the longevity of a cruise ship – at least 20 years – and that people’s tastes, needs and wants will change,” says Zeller. “For instance, on MSC Divina our speciality restaurant has changed three times over the years due to an ever-evolving market and demands of our guests.”

Designing in the flexibility to give each guest the dining experience they want is increasingly critical. “Guests want to dine at their preferred time – which is what we currently offer MSC Cruises’ guests booked in the Aurea experience and MSC Yacht Club,” says Zeller. “To accommodate this, we need to properly adjust our seating allocation and capacity, as well as table configuration. When it comes to buffets, increasingly guests want to see their food prepared freshly in front of them. Besides quick service and ‘grab-and-go’, people will want to see ‘live-action’ stations with open kitchens serving out fresh, hot and tasty food, offering a large variety to mix-and-match as per their own desires. You see it daily at MSC Cruises’ onboard pizza stations where our Napolitano Pizzaiolos hand-make and toss the ‘best pizza at sea’.”

Unique dining experiences are at the heart of Virgin Voyages’ first ship, Scarlet Lady, which will launch in 2020. “We set out to treat our ship like a small city full of different eating experiences – delivering an epic culinary journey that upholds transparent, ethical and responsible sourcing practices,” says Frank Weber, senior vice president of Hotel Operations at Virgin Voyages. “Instead of the buffet, our ships will feature a food hall style market – The Galley – where everything is made to order and portion-controlled to reduce waste. The main dining room will be replaced with multiple smaller à la carte restaurants which are all included in the voyage fare.”

Scarlet Lady’s restaurants include Wake, inspired by The Wolseley, London and The Grill, New York and offering a dramatic view of the ship’s wake. Razzle Dazzle’s interior scheme nods to the bold camouflaging of ships from World War I, while the menu combines ‘nice’ vegetarian and vegan dishes with ‘naughty’ meat add-ons. The Test Kitchen will offer innovative and avant-garde cuisine in a clean and modern space designed by Concrete Amsterdam and inspired by Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine. Gunbae, a Korean BBQ restaurant designed by Softroom, is the first of its kind at sea, providing a social, hands on, interactive dining experience. Pink Agave, an elevated Mexican restaurant designed by Tom Dixon, transports sailors to the vibrant streets of Mexico City through immersive void lighting. Extra Virgin, the ship’s trattoria, will serve regionally-inspired food, deeply rooted in Italian culinary traditions. The Dock, in the ship’s sun-dappled lounging area, is a beach club-inspired space designed by Roman and Williams. Meanwhile the Pizza Place provides a casual chill-out spot where sailors can enjoy freshly-made pizzas in beach club-inspired surroundings.

“Each kitchen and restaurant layout must be designed for its specific purpose,” says Weber. “A well-designed and thought-out workspace will make work easier and more efficient for the crew, enabling better quality and service speed to our sailors.”

New technology is also helping to ensure consistency and make food production more energy- and water-efficient. “One example is the MKN FlexiCombi oven, which can be programmed to cook specific products and recipes, enhancing quality and consistency,” says Weber. “The MKN FlexiChef has replaced many inefficient pieces of equipment in the galleys such as steam kettles and tilting pans. We can program recipes into it for the cooks to follow for consistent high-quality execution and a significant reduction in cooking times.”

Ultimately, Weber says that creating the perfect dining experience takes passion, research, creativity, relentless commitment to find a better solution and the willingness to take some risks. “For example, when we decided a Korean BBQ restaurant was right for our sailors, we didn’t know how we would pull it off,” he says. “Commercial Korean BBQ grills are typically gas- or charcoal-fired and on ships we cannot use open flame. There was no commercially viable electric grill on the market to serve the purpose so, working with our commercial partners at Oxin in Italy and Halton Marine, we invented, engineered and designed our own Korean BBQ table grill, with a custom-designed exhaust system to match.”

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Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths
Friday, April 19, 2019