In this final post of a three-part series, we’re taking a deep look at the evolution of three different cruise lines and the people behind what we think is one of the most relevant changes to business-as-usual to come about in recent memory.
Looking back on the 2016 Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise, a number of memories come to mind. Sailing from Hong Kong, we stopped in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, shopping with chefs at exotic ports of call along the way. Onboard cooking demonstrations, wine pairings, seminars and a variety of themed events reflecting that part of the world made the third Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise the best ever, once again setting the bar a bit higher for luxury dining at sea. Stop right there and the event was a solid win for Seabourn. Still, as the 2016 Seabourn Food And Wine Cruise was sailing, something else was cooking behind the scenes. Something that will clearly define ultra luxury dining at sea.
On the 2015 Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise we noted the extreme turn-on-a-dime capability of Seabourn’s culinary staff. Already impressive in and of themselves, that second sailing added what we coined “the Adam factor” as Seabourn added well-trained eyes of SAVEUR magazine Editor in Chief Adam Sachs to the celebrity lineup. Dreaming the way we do that cruise lines will take the choreography of onboard programming seriously, we had high hopes that bringing along Sachs would have a positive effect. That happened, in every way thought possible, and then some.
Along those same lines, let me introduce you to Thomas Keller, the world-renowned American chef, restaurateur and culinary genius behind a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants – The French Laundry, Per Se, and Bouchon.
Chef Keller was also onboard the 2016 Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise, but for different reasons. The reality of a partnership with Keller was already in progress, bringing an array of dishes, ranging from appetizers to entrees to desserts for multiple dining venues across the Seabourn fleet. When announced in 2015, Seabourn President Richard Meadows noted “There is really no chef more accomplished or held in higher esteem than Chef Keller, and we are both honored and delighted to have a restaurateur of his stature take our onboard culinary offerings to an even higher level.”
To me, the troubling part of that otherwise innocuous statement was a concern over how the existing culinary staff would react to the Keller infusion. Here were the Seabourn chefs, a select group of culinary experts, already unmatched by counterparts on any other cruise line. They had already been through the infusion of a celebrity chef as Seabourn teamed with Charlie Palmer for signature menu items in the past. Before the arrival of Keller, these guys were pretty much turned loose in a “whatever it takes” to knock the socks off Seabourn Guests in the culinary department, and that they did.
My concern came from an early career in the restaurant business, apprenticing under a very detail-oriented chef in high school who saw me as ‘the kid who comes in after school to peel sacks of onions and help with the prep work’. Nowhere even close to being on an International stage, I stuck around long enough to be trusted with ‘his’ kitchen enough for Chef Nate to take days off, something unheard of at the time. Probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in this lifetime was taking a bite of the management carrot and leaving the kitchen behind. Chefs really don’t play games like managers do, especially if their name is on the door. That’s serious business and takes one heck of a lot of courage to do in the first place, let alone make it work in spite of the criticism that bombards a creative chef from all angles.
To check the pulse of how that Keller infusion was going, I asked my friend and Seabourn consulting chef Tony Egger, there during the Charlie Palmer days, how it was going. How was the staff accepting the new Keller element? Was there any resentment there? How was it all playing out? Chef Egger shut that thought down without hesitation, looking me straight in the eye saying “No, this is a good thing. A very good thing. We are doing things we would never have thought of.” And that was that as Tony set the tone for what was happening in the frank and direct way I knew he would, adding “You know how carefully we plate (dishes) with tongs?” “Now we’re using tweezers”, summing up the detail that was going into producing the Keller menu items.
Indeed, while still being rolled out to the entire fleet, Chef Keller’s menu items were being offered without his name attached at the time, to test the waters so to speak and insure that all elements were in place before his personal stamp of approval was applied. Again noting the extreme detail that goes into everything Keller does, it was not enough to have the ability, equipment and ingredients needed to produce these creations, Keller would need to see that the effort could be sustained long after he had left the ship. The details of that effort also extended to Seabourn service staff who would describe and serve those menu items table side. It was right about here that the magic began to flow beyond the technical mechanics of replicating Keller’s creations on a consistent basis to emulating his thoughts behind them and taking that knowledge to the table.Right here was when I realized Keller fully appreciated the entire choreography of dining if not luxury cruise travel too.
Before service begins in a Seabourn dining venue, each menu item is produced by the person who will do so during service. All lined up in a row, the ship’s working Executive Chef personally inspects each item, checking for appearance, temperature and taste, providing feedback as he goes. A similar briefing is done in the dining room, with the Executive chef explaining each item on the evening’s menu, imparting knowledge that will be useful for the service team, the front line people that come into direct contact with each and every Seabourn guest. Wine pairing information by the ship’s sommelier is also included to prepare each service professional fully to make appropriate suggestions. It’s an ongoing effort that advances the cumulative knowledge of service team members as time goes on. During our time on board, the briefing also included some time for Chef Keller who made a point of adding a personal element to what might have otherwise been a matter of attaining very high goals that support very high standards; something Seabourn crewmembers are quite accustomed to in all areas of their operation.
Keller tells a story. A story of how one of his restaurants came about. The personal angle on how a dish was created. An extremely rare look into the mind of a creative genius few in this business are privy to. In the process, Keller shares his passion for all he does, why he does it and provides an infusion of the same in every single member of that kitchen crew and service team. It’s something they can bring to the table beyond their notes on ingredients, taste and what wine might go best with what dish. It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind magic that no other cruise line will be able to copy, all summed up in one spectacular moment in time, captured as chef Keller considered the final result of a menu item before his final stamp of approval was applied.
I stayed over after the 2016 Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise to capture much of the process in action. Following Chef Keller and his team around as the unique items were being rolled out on Seabourn Sojourn, the final ship in the fleet to receive them, I was in the ship’s galley one day as the process continued. Working side by side with Seabourn chefs ranging from a new kid just starting out to a well schooled Seabourn Corporate Chef, Keller considered everything from the equipment to sourcing ingredients, preparation and presentation.
Then he paused.
Taking the time to examine the finished product you could see the Michelin-starred chef considering the initial thought behind that menu item, all they had gone through to bring it to where it was at that time and the final result. I wondered “was he happy with it?, did it meet the expectations he had for it initially?, is it worthy of putting his well-known name on?”, all questions I can only imagine the answers to. But you could feel the creative energy dominating the space. This was pure genius right before our eyes and everyone around knew it.
Interestingly, all of the above reflects just one part of the reason Chef Thomas Keller was on board that sailing of Seabourn Sojourn. Also happening at the time, final plans for The Grill by Thomas Keller which recently opened on Seabourn Quest before being rolled out to the entire fleet . Renderings of the space formerly occupied by Restaurant 2 document the collaboration of Chef Keller with designer Adam D. Tihany noted in part one of this series.
The Grill is Seabourn’s newest signature restaurant, serving a menu inspired by the classic American chophouse. After debuting on Seabourn Quest, the collaboration between three-star Michelin chef Thomas Keller and designer Adam D. Tihany will expand to Seabourn’s newest ship, Seabourn Encore, which is scheduled to launch this December. Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Odyssey will also get the restaurant during regularly scheduled drydock periods, and Seabourn Ovation will begin offering it in spring 2018. The Grill will occupy the space that formerly housed Restaurant 2 onboard the current fleet.
The Keller organization partnership with Seabourn began in 2015. Guests of The Grill by Thomas Keller will be able to sample a menu that includes table-side preparations of Caesar salad and ice cream sundaes, as well as a range of other steakhouse favorites like Lobster Thermidor and creamed spinach, presented a la carte. The Grill by Thomas Keller will be open for dinner daily on all Seabourn vessels, and guests will have the opportunity to secure reservations online in advance of their cruise. In keeping with Seabourn’s all-inclusive rates, there is no additional charge to dine at The Grill.
We’ll have more on the Keller-infused Seabourn ultra luxury culinary program as time goes on. The item of ultra interest to upscale cruise travelers here is that none of the above can possibly be repeated or emulated by any other cruise line. As new ships come out and other lines more clearly define their culinary efforts, the Keller element here is an undeniable advantage of sailing with Seabourn.
Backing that thought up to parts one and two of this series, we took a look inside today’s Holland America Line and Cunard Line. Also locking down what they do onboard, we have mentioned leadership at those cruise lines occasionally, something most cruise travelers might not think a lot about. Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to see this series end with a focus on the people who make these things happen, the one variable that has the single most significant impact on our experience. The most beautiful and luxurious cruise ship in the world can not produce a good travel experience without them. From the President of the cruise line to the crew member who stacks deck chairs, each has their role. If played well, the magic happens. If not, things don’t quite click.
That’s where we pause our On A Similar Path To Excellence series; with the people who enable these cruise lines to do great things.