Service please: Creating a memorable dining experience

We ask how cruise and ferry companies develop food and beverage offerings

Service please: Creating a memorable dining experience
Food preparation is key for Viking Line, as demonstrated by the ferry operator’s pastry chef, Ilkka Laasio

By Richard Humphreys |

Developing an excellent dining experience is crucial for cruise and ferry operators. Not only do these venues and food and beverage offerings play an important role in achieving high levels of passenger satisfaction, but they also increase the chances of guests booking with the cruise brand again. 

Royal Caribbean International offers a range of international dishes in both the main dining rooms and the speciality restaurants across its 26-ship fleet. Linken D’Souza, vice president of food and beverage operations, says high-quality food is a vital part of any cruise. “Delivering memorable holidays is what drives us at Royal Caribbean,” he says. “We provide a variety of incredible meals on our ships and private destinations, including ‘Perfect Day at CocoCay’ in the Bahamas and Labadee in Haiti.” 

Offering a variety of dining options is also a priority for MSC Cruises. “Dining is an intrinsic part of a cruise for all guests,” says Jacques Van Staden, vice president of food and beverage at MSC Cruises. “As the ship travels from port to port, passengers want to discover and enjoy an array of flavours and styles of cuisine. They want more options and are curious to try new things. 

“A key part of any cruise is the all-inclusive dining offered in the main restaurants and buffet. To elevate the experience, it’s important for our guests to have speciality restaurants that offer well-thought-out concepts and, of course, fabulous food.” 

MSC Cruises has incorporated new speciality restaurants on most of its ships, with one highlight being HOLA! Tacos & Cantina on MSC Virtuosa. “By bringing the street food dining concept to sea, we wanted to offer our guests a selection of Latin American and Mexican-inspired dishes and drinks which could be enjoyed in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere,” says Van Staden. “Guests can even make their own guacamole with a pestle and mortar.” 

For Finnish ferry operator, Viking Line, the dining experience is proven to be one of the most important factors for customers booking a cruise. Wilhelm Hård af Segerstad, senior vice president at Viking Line, says the ferry operator has conducted a survey and analysed what passengers onboard its vessels most look for when booking a holiday, and found that food comes high on everyone’s list.  

“Good food, starting from the choice of raw materials to how the dishes are prepared and served, is something we have a great focus on,” says Hård af Segerstad. “We have a very competent, creative and customer-focused crew within our kitchen and restaurant departments, and every day they offer memorable dining experiences to our guests.” 

The dining experience is a key aspect of the entire guest experience says Florent Kuhry, hotel director on Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant’s newest ship, which sails to some of the most remote areas in the world. 

“We want our guests to remember how they felt when dining on our ships, whether it be the taste of the food or the friendliness and respectfulness of our waiters,” says Kuhry. “We would like our guests to have a memorable dining experience while looking at the magnificent landscapes passing by. We provide a lot of training to our crew both in the galley and in the restaurant to achieve this.” 

To ensure the onboard experience stays fresh and appealing for both loyal and first-time guests, food and beverage teams must continually come up with new dining concepts. MSC’s Van Staden says that passenger demographics, planned itineraries and where the ship will be deployed all come into play here. 

“We aim to offer a true gastronomic adventure with globally inspired menus and culinary artistry,” says Van Staden. “Our culinary team is in a constant pursuit to provide guests with a variety of dishes made with fresh, quality ingredients that are prepared with passion and authenticity.” 

Viking Line takes a similar approach, says Hård af Segerstad. “We offer various types of experiences, from high-class fine dining to versatile buffets and restaurants of different themes. We have also created large windows in our restaurants [on newbuilds Grace and Glory] to provide diners with magnificent views.” 

D’Souza reiterates the need for variety. “There are more than 165 different restaurant and bar experiences guests can enjoy on a Royal Caribbean ship and at our private destinations,” he says. “They have been thoughtfully designed following guests’ feedback, market research and consumer trends. We create all kinds of experiences – from a quick casual bite to fine dining – so people of any age and background never need to compromise.” 

D’Souza, who has worked at Royal Caribbean for the past five years, has overseen the launch of more than 25 new food and beverage offerings, including Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade, Sugar Beach and El Loco Fresh, a grab-and-go venue serving Mexican-style food. Other notable Royal Caribbean venues include Windjammer Marketplace, a global culinary pavilion, Café Promenade for snacks, and a global range of dishes available in the main dining room. “There’s also a wide variety of speciality restaurants, including the first Mason Jar Southern Restaurant & Bar aboard the Wonder of the Seas,” says D’Souza. “Plus, the Japanese-inspired dishes at Izumi and authentic Italian flavours at Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar.” 

While variety is important for Norwegian operator Hurtigruten, it is also keen to produce high-quality dishes made from sustainably sourced ingredients. “When guests travel onboard the Hurtigruten Coastal Express, we want to immerse them in Norway’s local culture, and food is a crucial ingredient of the experience,” says Øistein Nilsen, head chef at Hurtigruten. “Our Norwegian Coastal Kitchen offers guests a truly authentic Norwegian dining experience. The restaurants feature ingredients sourced from the areas we visit. 

“Sourcing local food isn’t just about finding fresh produce; it’s about achieving the lowest carbon footprint possible and ensuring minimal food waste. By managing supply and seasonality, our cuisine can be kind to the planet without compromising taste.” 

Viking Line is equally committed to sustainable sourcing and minimising waste. “Sustainability and environmental awareness are important issues for us,” says Hård af Segerstad. “We are striving to increase the use of locally produced products and organically grown materials to minimise the use of disposable goods and we have a continuous focus on reducing food waste.” 

According to Ponant’s Kuhry, it is the little details that count. “It’s a challenge to consistently deliver an outstanding quality of service on a unique ship, so we have teams in luxury hospitality,” he says. “French Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse is behind the gastronomic experience onboard Le Commandant Charcot, which has raised the gourmet catering standards to an exceptional level. We’ve trained our staff to attain the standards expected of Alain Ducasse restaurants on land. 

“We have also created a new job role, the front of house manager, to ensure maximum customer satisfaction.” 

In addition, Le Commandant Charcot offers a 1:1 crew to passenger ratio, allowing the crew to provide a highly personalised service. “Our bar, restaurant and housekeeping staff are always doing their best to remember our guests’ preferences in the dining rooms, bars, staterooms and suites, and this adds a beautiful touch to our service,” says Kuhry. 

Royal Caribbean also has a strong focus on ensuring its staff are working to the highest possible standards. “Every dish and drink is made and served with authenticity, care and precision – no detail is too small,” says D’Souza. “For more than 50 years, we have consistently tried new things and continued to build on our variety and innovate with a specific purpose of delighting out guests.” 

Hurtigruten is similarly dedicated to ensuring staff onboard its vessels are trained to a high standard. “Our restaurant staff undertake a rigorous training programme to equip them with the skills and knowledge required to deliver first-class service from their very first season,” says Nilsen. “Our vision of locally sourced cuisine goes hand in hand with championing home-grown talent, ingredients and suppliers.” 

In spring 2022, Hurtigruten launched its Culinary Ambassador programme, a collaboration with award-winning Norwegian chefs Astrid Nässlander and Halvar Ellingsen. 

“They are both from northern Norway and know how to get the most out of the unique ingredients harvested along the coast and from the sea,” says Nilsen. “Working with our chefs, they have crafted locally inspired, sustainably produced, delicious dishes exclusive to the restaurants on the Hurtigruten Coastal Express. Feedback from guests about the food has been very positive. They have also been impressed by our training programme and our commitment to supporting future chefs.” 

Ponant has also recorded high customer satisfaction levels among its passengers, primarily because it capitalises on opportunities to offer guests exclusive experiences. “When it comes to ordering supplies during our ports of call, I always try to seek out opportunities that our guests will really enjoy,” says Kuhry. “Recently in eastern Greenland while stopping in a very small village called Tassilaq, we purchased some fresh and smoked salmon that we served directly to our guests on the sea ice, and they loved it! 

“These kinds of events are really important to me, and as soon as we have an opportunity to do this sort of unforgettable experience, we try to make it happen.”  

This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

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