Foodies afloat

LOUISE GOLDSBURY
Last updated 05:00 19/03/2014

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Step away from the buffet. Modern cruising has much more to offer than ever in the dining stakes (although steaks continue to be the most popular order on the first night of any cruise).

Cruise ship cuisine has improved so significantly that even serious foodies are flocking to these floating restaurants.

The world's top chefs are lining up to reshape the culinary scene at sea by creating new menus and hosting gourmet-themed tours, while others have stamped their names on ships' alternative or specialty bistros.

Options are also growing on river cruises, which have the added benefit of easy access to fresh ingredients every day.

Cruise passengers, too, are changing.

Adam Armstrong, international commercial director, Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, says food has always been "a major drawcard" but demands have shifted over the past few years.

"We believe travellers all over the world, and particularly here in Australia, are developing more sophisticated tastes - they are willing to try different cuisines, actively seek out new food experiences and have very high expectations," he says.

"Guests also want smaller, more intimate venues and more varied cuisines."

Cruise lines have responded with a range of innovations, from some half-baked gimmicks to these 10 slow-burning trends that are likely to stay.

SPECIALITY DINERS

Most cruise lines have added several smaller dining venues as alternatives to the main dining room to give passengers more choice - or to squeeze more money out of them, depending on your view. For an extra $10-$45 a person, you can eat presumably better food away from the free-feeding crowd.

The most expensive, at $75, is Remy on board Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy.

Traditionalists may lament the loss of atmosphere previously found in one big, happy dining room, but according to Armstrong, most people want variety.

"Specialty dining simply gives guests yet another layer of choice, and the ability, if they have a particular craving, to choose to eat Mexican, say, for one particular lunch or Japanese for dinner."

RIVER ALTERNATIVES

Despite carrying fewer than 200 passengers, river cruise vessels have also introduced additional eating areas (with no surcharge), often in the form of indoor/outdoor cafes serving lighter snacks and pizza.

The future is pointing towards more exclusive venues, such as APT's Erlebnis, which launched this year on its Aria and Concerto ships. Free of charge, Erlebnis seats 24 people who can watch their six-course degustation being prepared in the glass-enclosed kitchen.

AL FRESCO DINING

Until recently, if you wanted to eat outside on ocean liners, you took your plate to an outdoor table or grabbed a burger at the poolside grill. The options are expanding faster than waistlines. Carnival Spirit has Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ, Seabourn and Silversea serve dinner on the pool deck, and NCL introduced The Waterfront, an open-air boardwalk of eight eateries, on its newest ships.

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CELEBRITY BRANDING

Some of the bigger superliners have aligned with celebrity chefs to add a dash of glamour and credibility. They don't personally cook on every cruise but usually devise the menus and train the onboard chefs. Holland America Line, which calls on respected restaurateurs to contribute signature dishes, recently appointed Mark Best to its "culinary council", which also includes Michelin-starred Jonnie Boer and "Mr Chocolate" Jacques Torres.

Best, the Sydney-based chef behind one of world's most highly acclaimed restaurants, Marque, saw value in exposing his business to a new audience of international cruise travellers. "I've always been very careful with the reputation of Marque and I felt that it fitted with the brand of Holland America," he says.

As part of the collaboration, Best has added 10 dishes to the fleet's main dining room menus. "As the logistics of working in a ship's galley is very different to a landside kitchen, I went back to Marque's classics and adapted them," he says.

CHEFS AS HOSTS

On selected cruises, celebrity chefs come on board to throw dinner parties or conduct cooking classes. This month MasterChef winner Julie Goodwin hosted a Murray River sailing on Captain Cook Cruises' PS Murray Princess.

Luke Nguyen, from Red Lantern in Sydney, leads small groups on APT river cruises in Vietnam. He takes passengers to "the Saigon of 25 years ago" and introduces them to the delicacies of remote villages.

"It's not just about the food, it's the story behind the recipe, it's meeting the woman who's been cooking those noodles on the same corner for 35 years," Nguyen says.

"People want to see the real country, to get into the neighbourhoods and eat in the cafes and patisseries that only locals know about, to appreciate why food is such a huge part of the culture."

HEALTHY FARE

Cruise lines are desperate to shake the stereotype of obese passengers stuffing themselves all day. Menus now include low-fat or low-calorie options and some ships devote entire restaurants to light meals, such as Celebrity Cruise's "spa-inspired" Blu.

Carnival Cruise Lines recently recruited The Biggest Loser personal trainer Shannan Ponton to advise chefs on Carnival Spirit.

"Aussies love to eat delicious, nutritious cuisine that is packed with fresh, local ingredients, and Shannan has helped us to craft some tasty new selections," says Jennifer Vandekreeke, vice-president of Carnival Cruise Lines Australia.

DIET CONSCIOUSNESS

Cruise lines make a special effort to accommodate all types of dietary needs. There is no shortage of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, salt-free, sugar-free, low-cholesterol, diabetic, Kosher and Halal meals. Fashionable fads are also embraced. Last year, SeaDream Yacht Club introduced a raw foods selection of salads, juices, desserts and a cauliflower lasagna made with layers of spinach leaves and coconut.

FRESH PRODUCE

The beauty of river cruising is that the vessels dock in the heart of cities and small towns with excellent farmers' markets, so the chefs can buy ingredients for each day's meals. On the most popular route, between Amsterdam and Budapest, fresh produce is brought on board daily, said Judith Hainke, marketing manager of Evergreen Tours. This also allows passengers to enjoy authentic regional specialties in each destination on the itinerary.

FOODIE EXCURSIONS

Most river cruise companies organise shore excursions where passengers join the ship's executive chef at the local markets, often followed by a cooking class back on board. Seabourn offers "shopping with the chef" tours on its ocean cruises around the world. Uniworld takes guests to a pasta-making demonstration in Italy. These small-group experiences underline the intimacy of small-ship cruising.

CATCH YOUR OWN

Expedition cruises combine food and adventure by offering opportunities to go fishing and, if it's edible, have your catch cooked by the chef. Passengers can catch barramundi on a Kimberley cruise (True North or Great Escape), piranha in the Amazon (Delfin or Aqua Expeditions), and Spanish mackerel off the back of the boat in Fiji (Captain Cook Cruises or Blue Lagoon Cruises).

EXPERT TIPS ON DINING AT SEA

If you avoid the specialty restaurants that charge an extra fee, it is possible to eat for free for your entire cruise - and you can order as many dishes as you like.

Speciality restaurants are often cheaper on the first night or at lunchtime. If you want to try several, ask about a "dining package" to save about 25 per cent.

Room service is usually free on international ships, but not on Australia-based ships.

Some cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine on embarkation day, but beware, there may be a corkage fee ($10-$20) if you BYO in the main dining room.

Choose "flexible" (any time) dining if you don't want to eat dinner at the same time with the same people every evening. To get to know your tablemates, choose "traditional" (fixed time).

FIVE CLASSIC CRUISE DISHES

BEEF Most cruise passengers order a steak on the first night.

LOBSTER TAILS Why pay on land when you can have it for free at sea?

SURF AND TURF The definition of a cruise - the union of ocean and land.

AFTERNOON TEA Finger sandwiches, cakes, scones, cream and jam.

BOMBE ALASKA This dessert - a mix of ice-cream and sponge cake, topped with meringue and then flambeed - is traditionally served on the last or second last night by a parade of dancing waiters.

All at sea with the top chefs

LUKE MANGAN

Cruise line P&O

What they say The award-winning Australian chef brings his reputation, talent and flair to this stand-out restaurant, all for a fraction of the price you pay on land.

Onboard restaurants Salt Grill

Top dish Crab omelette, enoki mushroom salad and miso broth

NOBUYUKI "NOBU" MATSUHISA

Cruise line Crystal Cruises

What they say The legendary Nobu's Japanese-Peruvian fusion, specialising in sushi and sashimi, has been served complimentary on every sailing since 2003.

Onboard restaurants Silk Road

Top dish Whitefish sashimi with ponzu

JACQUES PEPIN

Cruise line Oceania Cruises

What they say The line "for foodies", Oceania hired the chef to ex-French president Charles de Gaulle to make its cuisine the finest at sea.

Onboard restaurants Jacques'

Top dish Poulet roti aux herbes (herb-crusted chicken with gratin dauphinois)

MARCO PIERRE WHITE

Cruise line P&O UK

What they say Classic grilled fare using the finest ingredients, skilfully prepared and presented with trademark flair in a relaxed yet sophisticated ambience.

Onboard restaurants Ocean Grill

Top dish Deep-fried soft shell blue crab with sesame coleslaw

DAVID THOMPSON

Cruise line Aqua Expeditions

What they say The Australian Michelin-starred chef, of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok, will join a new ship scheduled to launch on the Mekong River in September.

Onboard restaurants qua Mekong

Top dish Pennywort salad with pork and lobster

TRIP NOTES

The 2014-15 "wave season" begins on September 20. For upcoming cruises see:

royalcaribbean.com; celebritycruises.com; carnival.com; pocruises.com; aptouring.com; seabourn.com; silversea.com; seadream.com; hollandamerica.com; evergreentours.com; uniworld.com; delfinamazoncruises.com; northstarcruises.com; captaincook.com; wiltrans.com; oceaniacruises.com; greatescape.net; aquaexpeditions.com; bluelagooncruises.com.

MORE INFORMATION aptouring.com; manquerestaurant.com; lukemangan.com.

Cruise specialist, Louise Goldsbury has gained only five kilograms enjoying meals aboard more than 40 river and ocean cruises around the world.

- FFX Aus

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