Cruisers' taste buds are more adventurous and restless than ever before, demanding the same quality and variety they can get on land. Cruise lines are answering the call (and their reply is delicious). While the cruising industry might be a year or two behind the food trends you'll find on dry land, you'll be impressed by what's cooking onboard cruise ships these days. Gastronomic dreams like farm-to-table dining, cutting the lines at the hottest global gathering spots for gourmands and getting your hands dirty with meal prep in the kitchen are real culinary options onboard cruise ships currently plying oceans and rivers worldwide.
Get acquainted with the latest culinary offerings at sea with these five cruise food trends.
1. Locally (and Responsibly) Sourced Food
People want to know where their food is from, and on land, they're paying for the privilege. The farm-to-table (or market-to-table) movement brings local, sustainable and mostly organic products from local producers to homes and restaurants. Items are typically intended to be prepared within a short timeframe from purchase -- preserving their integrity. Market fare is not only considered to be fresher, but also healthier. This trend is taking to the sea, with more cruise lines sourcing ingredients from local vendors in ports visited. This can be a sizable feat on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, especially considering how many passenger meals a chef onboard might have to prepare for: hundreds to thousands each night. Due to a smaller passenger base and a high standard of excellence, luxury and river cruise lines are the most likely to offer such local cruise food menus. The chefs onboard Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection source seasonal produce and inspiration from the markets they visit, bringing those flavors to cruise passengers with wine pairings and even the opportunity to accompany a chef to a local market as part of a shore tour. Similar experiences are available on Oceania Cruises and Viking Cruises.
On the cruelty-free front, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which operates six cruise brands internationally, and Carnival Corporation, with its 10 brands, have committed to using 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2022 and 2025, respectively. Royal has further committed to sourcing pork from vendors using gestation-free crates by 2022.
2. Upgraded Bar Bites
Just because you want to grab a casual drink, doesn't mean you're interested in a communal bowl of peanuts. As on land, at-sea bar- and pubgoers are no longer satisfied with a simple, salty snack and cruise ship bars are responding with some downright gourmet takes on pub food, providing snacks that can stand alone -- no booze required. You can nosh and imbibe with panache on your next cruise, without leaving your barstool. On Norwegian Escape, for instance, all of the 74 mostly craft beers at the ship's District Brew House can be accompanied by the gastropub-style fare from Food Republic, just across the hall. Similarly, order a glass of wine at The Cellars on Escape and small plates like Iberico ham and Manchego cheese are provided by Pincho, a tapas bar designed by Iron Chef Jose Garces. Princess Cruises features the Salty Dog Gastropub, a space inside of the Wheelhouse Bar, on select ships. The menu offers droolworthy dishes such as spicy stout short ribs, lobster mac 'n' cheese and the piece de resistance -- "The Ernesto burger" from Chef Ernesto Uchimura of Umami Burger (a ribeye and short rib beef patty, grilled pork belly, caramelized kimchi, beer-battered jalapenos and charred onion aioli, topped with cave-aged Gruyere cheese).
Chef Michael Schwartz has used his James Beard award-winning talents to transform 150 Central Park's menus aboard Oasis and Allure of the Seas. They now provide seasonal, local fare affectionately known as "farm to ship." Bringing that flair to Royal's Quantum Class, Schwartz lent his name to Michael's Genuine Pub, serving up craft beer along with refined pub food ranging from polenta fries served with spicy ketchup to a Greek farro salad with feta.
3. Palates Go Global
When it comes to adventurous new cuisine, it's go global or go home. Cruisers don't just want fine dining, they want a chance to explore the flavors of the ports they visit. International dishes, inspired by ports of calls, are becoming standard on main dining room menus across multiple cruise lines. Holland America's Culinary Council, a group of top chefs from around the world, have created an international carte du jour that spans nightly dinner offerings in the dining room to wine blending with Chateau Ste. Michelle. Alternative restaurants like Celebrity Cruises' Qsine play with whimsical food concepts pulling from regional specialties like sushi lollipops, a meatball trilogy, a taco "royale" and a Persian kebob. Working with the Pubbelly Restaurant Group of Miami, Norwegian Cruise Line developed Food Republic, an a la carte venue filled with gourmet international bites and shareables from Peru, China and Japan among others -- try the dates and chorizo with smoked bacon, tomato and goat cheese crema; spicy Korean chicken wings or a new take on noodles or ceviche.
Crystal Yacht Cruises promises an "elegant and eclectic menu of globally inspired Michelin-starred cuisine" sourcing locally from stops like the Seychelles, but also destinations worldwide. The line's Sunset Bar & Grill will feature "global street food" served tapas-style, drawing from the ship's itinerary.
4. DIY Cuisine
It's not enough to be served impeccable course after course anymore -- the New Age Foodie Cruiser needs to be involved. Test kitchens and hands-on culinary arts programming are popping up on cruise ships with classes, demos, shoreside shopping excursions and cooking alongside the chef being standard inclusions. You'll find such test kitchens and culinary courses at sea from the revamped Gourmet Explorer Series on Oceania's Marina and Riviera and Viking Ocean Cruises' The Kitchen Table to new-builds like Holland America's Koningsdam, which will feature a Culinary Arts Kitchen presented by Food & Wine Magazine; and Regent Seven Seas' Explorer, which will also feature a space called the Culinary Arts Kitchen. Explorer is scheduled to feature Gourmet Explorer Tours, which elevate the epicurean experience by getting passengers in the front door of Michelin-star-rated restaurants that normally have multi-month waiting lists.
Select sailings of Silversea ships offer L'Ecole Des Chefs by Relais & Chateaux -- a high-end cooking school concept including a knife skills workshop, sommelier pairing and slow food experience. Miss the thrill of the grill when you're out at sea? Celebrity Silhouette and Reflection offer the chance to BBQ like you're in your own backyard... at sea... with the Lawn Club Grill, an alfresco venue with real grass that welcomes "grill masters" to perfect their technique over meats, pizza and more.
5. Celebrity Chef Partnerships Continue
The trend of celebrity chefs at sea remains, but the industry has seen a turnover of restaurateurs in the past few years. New to the industry is Iron Chef Jose Garces, who joined the Norwegian Cruise Line team in 2015 for the launch of his first eateries at sea: Bayamo, a Latin-inspired seafood restaurant and Pincho, a traditional Spanish tapas bar, both aboard Norwegian Escape. Jamie Oliver has dining venues onboard two Royal Caribbean ships -- Quantum and Anthem of the Seas, where Jamie's Italian is a love letter to the Italian palate. On small-ship cruise line Seabourn, chef and restauranteur Thomas Keller of French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon fame has added his touches to menus fleetwide, and will bring a signature restaurant (still in development) to all Seabourn ships. Well-known masters of their craft, such as Nobu Matsuhisa, whose Silk Road is onboard Crystal Cruises, and Guy Fieri with his Guy's Burger Joints on Carnival ships, are still around as well.
--By Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor