There’s a good chance that you’ll never have heard of Cornelius Gallagher, but this winter he will open 29 restaurants and bars all on the same day. “It’s quite a risk,” he admits. “Even the biggest hotels in Las Vegas don’t do that.” But Gallagher, who held a Michelin star at Oceana in New York and worked at elBulli in Catalonia, has an ace up his sleeve. His instantly created hospitality empire won’t be on land but at sea, aboard the new state-of-the-art Celebrity Edge cruise ship, with a captive audience of about 3,300 hungry guests.
In a hostile economic environment which has seen many restaurant closures, a cruise ship is the best place to open such a venture right now. Nearly two million British holidaymakers opted for a cruise holiday in 2017 and industry analyst cruisemarketwatch.com reports 6.63 per cent annual growth worldwide.
But what can passengers expect to eat in the middle of the ocean, where chefs can’t just pick up the phone and get a delivery of fresh produce within hours, as they can on land? “The core fundamentals of what make a restaurant great are exactly the same at sea as they are on land,” says Gallagher, whose official title is far too long to write down. “One is the people. The hardest thing [for most restaurants] now is to get talented chefs with great attitude – and we have that in spades. The second is a focus on ingredients. We don’t just order tomatoes and let them show up. We have our executive chefs on the docks and in the markets, tasting constantly.”
At a “culinary reveal’’ for Celebrity Edge in New York earlier this year, dishes included kumamoto oysters with yuzu mignonette (from its Raw on 5 Japanese restaurant); hickory smoked brisket with mustard-vinegar slaw (from the Rooftop Garden Grill) and strozzapreti carbonara with guanciale – hand-rolled pasta with cured meat (from the ship’s Tuscan restaurant). What they couldn’t simulate was the ship’s “magic carpet” – a cantilevered platform the size of a tennis court which travels 13 storeys up and down the side of the vessel, offering “dinner on the edge” along with panoramic sea views.
To experience the real thing, I joined a two-night taster cruise aboard Celebrity Silhouette from Southampton to Le Havre. A tour of the galley, with charismatic executive chef Denton Laing, was a genuine eye-opener. With 12,000 meals served daily, according to Laing, I had fully expected some of the food to come from packets, but the first thing I saw was a chef whipping up gallons of fresh vinaigrette from scratch. “For health-and-safety reasons, if it’s not used within four hours it’s thrown away,” says Laing.
A walk-in refrigerated fish prep and storage area was bigger than many entire restaurant kitchens (separate areas for meat and for poultry were on a similar scale) and there was enough fresh fruit and veg to stock a supermarket for a week. It was catering on a massive scale, with kitchens the size of football pitches kitted out with stand mixers as tall as a man. Yes, there were the expected bottomless breakfast buffets, but also intricate dishes such as scallop ceviche with kumquat and crispy quinoa, served at the ship’s Luminae restaurant. These were as delicate and intricate as anything you would find at a Michelin-starred restaurant on land.
Nor is Celebrity the only cruise line with something foodie to shout about. Luxury operator Seabourn has bagged seven-Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller to consult on its fleet of five ships. “The Grill is inspired by classic American restaurants like the Stork Club and the Brown Derby, and by dishes such as lobster Thermidor and pasta primavera,” says Keller.
Chefs Atul Kochhar, Marco Pierre White, Nobu Matsuhisa and Luke Nguyen have all made their mark on cruise ships, while Silversea has partnered with hotel and fine dining group Relais & Chateaux. Until Celebrity Edge makes its maiden voyage from Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean in December, we won’t know if it really is the future of dining at sea. In the meantime, though, it appears that cruise cuisine is all shipshape and Bristol fashion.