After service, I can't imagine any single topic that gets more comments from cruise-ship passengers than food. And why not? For many passengers, it's the highlight (or in some case the lowlight) of a cruise. I recently had the chance to sample the cuisine on a new luxury ship, Silversea's Silver Spirit, as well as Cunard's Queen Mary 2, and I was able to speak to Cunard's executive chef, Jean-Marie Zimmerman, who gave me some useful insight into the cruise-ship experience from a chef's point of view.
Dining on a Mainstream Cruise Line
The vast majority of cruisers will be cruising on mainstream cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian. For the most part, food on these lines is good, and it's actually improved in the past few years overall, even as the cost of cruising has not gone up. But what you get is more like good banquet food than real restaurant food.
Even in most of the extra-charge restaurants you'll find food that's equivalent to a mid-priced casual-dining chain restaurant. At NCL's La Cucina restaurant, for instance, you're going to get something closer to Olive Garden or Carrabba's than Mario Batali. But I've been completely satisfied with my meals on mainstream cruise ships. While the food rarely sparkles very brightly, it's rarely terribly disappointing. Lobster is more likely to be a frozen New England tail than a fresh Caribbean lobster, but that's true these days even on most of the upscale lines as well.
Surprises: Most baked goods—even on mainstream lines—are made on the ship. They are often made from frozen dough that is not made onboard, but they will at least be freshly baked. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not the uncommon sights that they were in years past. And many lines are switching to buffet set-ups where food is made in smaller batches, if not to order at separate food stations.
Not Surprising: Your hamburger is still likely to be from a frozen patty, and it's not likely to be any better than what you get in a local fast-food place. You have to pay extra for almost everything that's not served in the main dining room.
Dining on a Premium Cruise Line
So-called "premium" lines like Holland America, although they don't always charge that much more than Carnival (or considerably less as in the case of a ship like Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas), are a definite step up, in my opinion. I sailed on the Eurodam last October, and I was really impressed at the quality of the soups, which were made from mostly fresh ingredients. Even at the end of the cruise, fresh berries were still being served with breakfast. There were plenty of pedestrian choices in the main dining room—undistinguished spaghetti Bolognese and boneless roast turkey—and the menus seemed to be planned to within an inch of their lives (like many cruise lines, Holland America uses a rotating series of menus that are as predictable as the sunrise).
But food in the specialty restaurants was uniformly excellent and delicious. The prime steaks served in the Pinnacle Grill were as good as anything I've had in an upscale steakhouse in New York (though not on the order of what you'd get at Peter Luger), and the seafood tasted fresh, not frozen. But you'll find that more food is cooked from scratch on a premium ship than on a mainstream ship, and that generally means that standards are a bit higher. The line's executive chef, Rudi Sodiman happened to be present on the cruise I took, and his cooking demonstrations were fun; many lines (not just premium lines) now offer these on regular basis, and they are popular. FYI: MSC and Princess are also generally considered premium lines, but I don't have any experience sailing with them, so I can't really comment on their food quality.
Surprises: On Holland America, a section of the buffet is turned into a reservations-only Italian restaurant by night, and the food there is commendable (and cooked to order) and doesn't cost extra. The hamburgers and salmon burgers (grilled salmon fillet on a bun) served in the poolside grill were among the best I've ever had on a ship or at a resort (including the excellent buns); if you spring for a private cabana, you can get your salmon burger with a side of delicious seaweed salad not available at the grill). The bread pudding was just as good as I had heard.
Not surprising: For me, good wine is as much a part of the meal as good food; wines on Holland America were grossly overpriced, even by the standards I'm used to seeing in New York. However, those available on the by-the-glass wine plans were decent, if undistinguished, and a good deal.
Dining on a Luxury Line
Dining on a luxury cruise line is yet another step up. When I visited the Queen Mary 2 recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Cunard's executive chef Jean-Marie Zimmermann, who told me that virtually all ingredients (even fish) on the typical Cunard cruise are fresh. This means that these ships have experienced fish and meat butchers on board; it means that bakers work with flour and yeast instead of frozen doughs; and it means that almost all the fruits and vegetables you encounter are fresh as well; very few things on board are pre-made from mixes, though some ice creams are purchased rather than made on board. Of course, there are drawbacks to cooking for 2,000 passengers a day. Obviously, the cooks can't make all food to order. It has to be mass-produced in the main dining room even if it is created from scratch. For a more restaurant-style menu, you really have to eat in one of the specialty restaurants, where all meals can be cooked to order, and even on a luxury line like Cunard, you have to pay for the privilege.
On a smaller luxury ship like the Silver Spirit, which I also visited recently, food in the large main dining room is made on a production line, but there are also several more intimate venues in which you can dine in a more restaurant-like setting. And even the drinks are complimentary (a growing trend on luxury lines) unless you want to order a fine wine by the bottle; but since the ship pours a variety of different wines daily, you never feel compelled to buy (unless you dine in the Le Relais & Châteaux "Restaurant," where a purchase from the reserve wine list is a (required) part of the experience.
Surprises: In the large dining rooms on many luxury lines, the meals are not always that much better than on a premium cruise line. The ingredients certainly are, but it's just difficult to cook something outstanding even for 300 people at a time. You really have to eat in the specialty restaurants to see the real quality of the ingredients come through, though breads and baked cooks are uniformly excellent on luxury lines. Chef Zimmermann (who wouldn't name names) told me about the failures of many a top chef who tried to adapt his or her style to the cruise-ship environment; when you're used to cooking for 100 guests per night, it's just not the same experience when the crowd grows to 1,000.
Not Surprising: The notable increase in the quality of ingredients and the experience of the chefs on a luxury line does make a difference, and that is noticeable even in the buffet line, where the offerings are of a much higher standard than what you find on a mainstream ship (here, the difference is most stark). Also, bartenders on luxury lines are going in the same directions that they are on-land: more interesting and complex drinks made from exotic liquors and ingredients (molecular foams have found their way onto the Queen Mary 2).
Photo credit: Cunard Lines