Nobody goes on a cruise to lose weight, and when they are onboard a Celebrity Cruises ship, they expect a high quality of cuisine. Delivering that is the team of Scott Steenrod, vice president of food and beverage. But besides quality, providing quantity is a challenge his team meets daily. Steenrod estimates his employees feed a total of 22,000 guests on one of 10 (soon to be 11) cruise ships three meals plus plenty of morning, afternoon and evening between-meal cuisine and snacks daily.
On the longest cruise – 16 days – on the largest ship, Steenrod estimates the company provides 24 tons of food for all the guests. Creating recipes for fresh and unique cuisine for a wide variety of tastes, diets and ethnicities is handled by his team of 10 executive and traveling chefs at the company’s Miami headquarters. A team of 15 executive chefs lead the food preparation on the 10 ships throughout the year as the cruising season shifts from warm climates like the Caribbean and Australia in the North American winter to Europe and the Pacific Northwest for the summer.
“Celebrity has always offered five-star dining,” Steenrod declares. “That is the heart of who we are as a brand. We’re in essence delivering a range of world-class restaurant experiences all under one roof that rivals the best of what you can find in any restaurant in the world. We’re breaking through some of the wrong ideas people have about cruising – that it’s all quantity over quality, it’s not sophisticated and it’s all very classical food.”
As soon as people climb onboard Celebrity’s cruise ships for the first time, they see their misperceptions of what cruise food can be go out the porthole. “So what we’re really doing is responding to trends and shifts in the market,” Steenrod notes. “We’re having a more diverse mix of guests coming onboard from different locations around the world. Middle Eastern food is on our ships. So are gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan, vegetarian options – all these are growing in the number of requests we are seeing from our guests.”
Guests also are showing some social consciousness in what they eat. “They want to see more sustainable food that is grown under ideal conditions and more organic on their menu,” Steenrod reports. “One of the next big trends is use of the term ‘heirloom.’ That is the next big thing coming.”
Each ship has a variety of dining, from hamburgers poolside to European-style fine dining. “In our main restaurant particularly, the appeal of a good old-fashioned, well-prepared steak served with potatoes and vegetables is timeless,” Steenrod adds. “Our guests are telling us they don’t need a lot of pretense or fussiness – just deliver excellence and high quality.”
Guest reaction to changes in the menus varies. “As soon as we start tinkering with the menu, we’re going to get a reaction,” Steenrod point out. “Some might be good, and some not good. It’s very difficult to please everybody. But we’ve developed a formula that we think is a winning one, and we try to stay true to that.”
Because guests can order any entrée on the menu as part of their ticket price, Celebrity Cruises provides a variety of gourmet alternatives, rather than surrounding an expensive dish like a filet mignon with obviously lower-priced entrees on the menu.
“We’re better off creating a variety of very exciting offerings on board that allow us to offset the pressure on any one thing,” Steenrod notes.
“The human tendency is to order the most expensive things,” he adds. “What you’ll find on our menus is we have a rack of lamb accompanied by a petite filet or tournedos to create the balance that we’re looking for. If [guests] know there are certain dishes that have an equal perception of quality and ‘being gourmet,’ we can offer those dishes as well, and behind the scenes do what we need to do to purchase intelligently.”
Guests can purchase specialty dining packages for visiting certain restaurants multiple times. Four or five buyers at the company’s corporate headquarters purchase food for the company. “We have developed an incredible discipline,” Steenrod maintains. “We can manage down to the penny of what we’re spending per person per day.”
In April, the esteemed James Beard House in New York City featured cruise line chefs for the first time – Celebrity’s two-time James Beard-nominated Director of Culinary Operations John Suley and a team of chefs from Celebrity were invited to cook a meal at the legendary historic venue.
This was the third time that Suley had done so, the other two taking place during positions he held before joining Celebrity Cruises. “We’ve assembled the cruise industry’s best team of culinary professionals under one roof here in our corporate office in Miami, and of course, out on the ships,” Steenrod maintains. “They are the main creative driving force.”
Food is not prepared in advance for the company’s ships but rather onboard, Steenrod maintains. “Our preference is very much to stick to our time-tested approach of making food onboard, fresh from scratch,” Steenrod explains. “Some of the most basic items – bread sticks, everything – are made on the ships.
“We have explored some premade doughs in the past, such as premade cookie dough or premade pizza dough,” Steenrod adds. “I’m personally not happy with those things and asked that we take another look at them. We haven’t found the right formula that really works for our purposes, and most importantly, for our guests.
“We see the benefit, but it’s not something that we have found capable of working in our environment,” Steenrod continues. “We haven’t found the right product at the right price that meets our needs. We have an existing workforce assigned to the ship, and it’s simpler, easier and higher in quality to make everything fresh from scratch themselves.”
Celebrity Cruises offers a unique option for its guests – beverage packages, which can offer an open bar-type of experience for many types of beverages all day for a single daily fee. There are non-alcoholic packages as well as alcoholic, ranging from innovative formulations from the onboard mixologist to a selection of up to 500 different wine labels onboard the newest cruise ships. In an industry first, some restaurants even have their menus on iPads that are passed out to diners.
For the future, Steenrod sees continuing innovation. “The industry is going from a position of being a follower to a leader in the culinary world,” he maintains. “We’ve gone from sticking with the very traditional impression people get from banquets to offering very cutting-edge experiences. Our goal is to be the leader in cruise ship dining in terms of innovation. I also want us to lead the way in terms of quality, certainly among the larger carriers, and, most importantly, our guests tell us we do an outstanding job of making them happy.