Knowing the competition, familiarizing ourselves with what they do and how they do it, not so we can conquer in the culinary battle, as much as to fill a need to educate ourselves on trends, fads, and what the dining consumer expects, is a fundamental step on the culinary ladder to success.
Often, we look up, down and across the street and think we know the tastes of the neighborhood, forgetting that our customers have the ability to leave town, travel and explore dishes of other cultures, lands, and venues.
When I boarded the Celebrity Cruise Line´s Century last Saturday in Miami I had no idea what to expect. It had been 14 years since my last cruise and in 1992 cruising, although a popular pastime was not nearly as predominant in the American vacation planner as it is today. I was aware of one thing before I hit the tarmac- kiss the Sonoma Diet goodbye while on board and explore the carbs, sugars, pizza, and plates of pasta that are so predominant on a ship.
I was wrong. If I wanted to stick to the diet, I could have. However, a strong gust ripped the book out of hand while standing on the fantail deck preparing my culinary itinerary. Overcome with the ignorance that inflated my weight to abundant proportion in the first place. Realizing it was a function of this assignment to taste everything in front of me I strayed from the Sonoma Diet course and indulged in heartily in every course available.
Shipboard life is one course after another. The daily food fest never ends. It is constantly enticing your senses, titillating your palate, tickling your taste buds, and summoning you to one plate after another. Around every corner, a buffet table lurks with more food than most restaurant owners prepare in an evening.
The Century is relatively small by the mega ship standards of this century´s fleet.
This floating horizontal high rise only holds 1800 passengers and 800 crew-members- an impressive crew to passenger service ratio. It shouts perfect service. The culinary team prepares over 9000 meals each day. And, as a doubter from a decade before, I wasn´t ready to taste test the frozen food extravaganza that so many assume awaits them when the gangplank is raised and the Bon Voyage party begins.
Those days, my friends, are as ancient history. Cruising execs now realize they are competing with Vegas; they are trying to capture the same dollar and are doing a remarkable job at it.
We all know a snicker is sure to surface when the word buffet is tossed around, but the world of ships are no longer slow boats when it comes to culinary prosperity. In the style of Las Vegas the Cruise industry now prides itself in special occasion restaurants on board that are booked months in advance, service that makes Vegas look like paupers, and an atmosphere allowing for good morning greeting to begin as protocol and transform into sincerity as the ship logs miles.
Don´t think for a moment ships at sea are not your competition, they are. Plus, they are raising the culinary bar on expectations for the consumer. Last evening, at midnight, while adventuring into a small kitchen- a satellite culinary station on deck 11- in search of one the chocolate chip cookies that had moments earlier filled a basket lined with a white linen cloth, I watched as prep chefs julienned Portobello mushrooms the size of small saucers. The preparation wasn´t going to linger for the next day´s buffet. The mushrooms were placed on the freshly baked pizzas coming out of the oven to feed anyone still ravenous after devouring the five-course meal in the Grand Dining Room only hours earlier.
Most passengers, I am sure, this writer included left hunger in Miami. Once on board, eating habits are dialed to autopilot while thoughts of slender moments are miles away. The battle between that great feeling of water- induced-emptiness frequently fights with the feelings of monumental expansion as those miniature cream-puffs dance from the silver tray to your over loaded plate.
And we thought the Cheesecake factory served enormous proportions. Guess again. Those are appetizer-sized mounds compared to the ship´s fare.
The preparation is not being executed by culinary hacks. This is the new frontier and I am sure the culinary team on board boasts the best of culinary institutes across the world. Where have all the great sous chefs gone? We can only imagine. These cruise lines are the trendsetters that are competing for not only your dollars while passengers are on board, but these corporate culinary conglomerates are raising the bar on culinary expectations for the American Palate.
This is not to say that the gourmand will be ecstatic at every meal and every service- as we all know- eaters are tough people to please. However, as we line up in Grand Cayman Harbor next to a fleet of floating sleekness, I can´t imagine passengers on each of these nautical palaces are not leaving the ship only to hurry back at day´s end to indulge in an afternoon buffet the length of a football field. What would we expect; we must build a base for the evening´s menu of Lobster followed by Baked Alaska.
And for those shore bound that´s a tough menu to follow.