Chef John Suley seems to be everywhere on the foodie scene these days. Celebrity’s associate vice president for food and beverage operations has led a team that cooked at the prestigious James Beard House (twice), headed pop-up restaurants in New York City and San Francisco and still manages to develop menus for Celebrity’s fleet at sea too.
Now Suley is working on the line’s “Top Chef” partnership formed with Bravo TV, and also putting together the new private dining room that Celebrity will be rolling out for suite guests next year. We caught up with Suley last month at a Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival Backyard BBQ event aboard the Celebrity Reflection at PortMiami.
Q: Talk about the Top Chef at Sea partnership. What can cruisers expect?
A: “We’ll have four branded cruises with Top Chef contestants, you know, some of the highlights, or the star chefs, of those particular seasons. At the same time, we’ll have branded Quickfires and different types of touch points and elements on every single Celebrity cruise with the partnership with the Top Chef. Throughout the [main] dining room, there’ll be one dish that will be on the menu that will rotate, and it’ll be highlighting different types of Top Chef contestants. It’ll be their recipes and it’ll be our chefs executing the Top Chef-inspired dishes. I think it’s extremely exciting; it kind of puts the stake more in the ground about the culinary kind of footprint.”
Q: Has the focus on specialty restaurants lessened the main dining room experience?
A: “That’s actually a really good question. I think the main dining room is just as important as the specialty restaurants even though there isn’t a cover charge. If you think about it, we serve 21 dishes every day that rotate. We have a left side menu with the classics, if you want a broiled salmon or a simple grilled New York strip steak with a baked potato – we have that. Then we have our SPE offerings on the ship, where we have a healthy version [of dishes]. I don’t know any restaurant in the world that I’ve ever worked at that rotate their menus every single day for the guests.”
Q: Walk us through an SPE Certified dish. Can passengers really have it all?
A: “It’s a healthier style of eating – and it should be the way we’re eating. Instead of having a 12-ounce New York strip steak, the portion is only 4.5 ounces. Or a piece of fish is only four ounces. This is kind of what it’s about, eating what you should be eating on the plate with your right amount of vegetables You could still have starch, people think, ‘hey, you can’t have any starch.’ There’s no butter in the appetizer or the entrée, we save that at the end for the dessert so that you can have a well-balanced meal.
Q: How has cooking at the James Beard House lured cruisers to Celebrity?
A: “I think that really brings a different type of concerning customer onboard that really focuses on the culinary, the food and beverage experiences. We were the first cruise line to do the James Beard dinner; actually we did it two years in a row, and we got invited again to do it this year, so three times a charm.”
Q: What do you see as the future of cruise ship dining?
A: “I think, for us, in the future, it’s really just maintaining the integrity of the food. Not overcomplicating it, really dealing with trying to get as much locally sourced product in at any given port and tell that story. For example, we’re in Alaska, we get Alaskan halibut, there’s so many different varieties of salmon we can have. So, we really want to bring that product onboard and tell that story to the guests so they have that memory when they’re in that specific port.”
Q: Beyond Top Chef, what’s next on Celebrity’s ‘plate’?
A: “We’re going to be doing, early next year, a suite private dining, where we’re going to have a private dining room just for suite guests. We’re actually configuring the space right now somewhere on the ships [through the whole fleet], so we’re going to take an existing space and then we’re converting that into a whole new dining experience. It’s really going to be global cuisine that the menu will change and it’ll be dishes that you can’t get from anywhere else.”