(3:15 p.m. EST) -- When Seabourn Cruises announced its partnership with Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller, foodies who sail sat up and paid attention.
After all, Keller is one of the most recognizable names in the culinary world (despite a recent takedown of his New York restaurant, Per Se, by the New York Times). We celebrated a milestone event at The French Laundry in Yountville a few years ago, and came away impressed. The ability to sample his creations daily, without dropping $500 for just one dinner, seemed like a win to us.
Yet the response to the announcement on Cruise Critic's Seabourn message boards has been skeptical. Longtime fans of the luxury line prefer things to stay as they are, it seems, and have a jaded view on celebrity partnerships. (Seabourn worked with star chef Charlie Palmer from 2001 to 2011; some of the line's signature dishes were born from that collaboration.)
So as we boarded Seabourn Sojourn for the line's third Food and Wine Cruise, we were interested to see first-hand what Keller at sea would look like.
Finding Keller on Sojourn turned out to be harder than it looked. The ship was still undergoing implementation of the Keller menu; in fact, an executive chef from his Napa operation boarded in Bangkok to do a final run-through. (Sister ships Quest and Odyssey already have the Keller menu in place.) But a careful reading of the menus in all restaurants let us experience several of his dishes, and interviews with staff and fellow passengers gave us some perspective on Seabourn's new initiative.
The Keller Way: New Techniques, Better Products
As part of the partnership, Seabourn's top chefs were sent to Keller's kitchens in Napa for six weeks of training. When they came back, they worked next to other chefs in the galley, teaching them how to do the specially created Keller dishes and repeating them over and over again, with the goal of attaining consistency. That's why they weren't labeled yet on our cruise; until the dishes can be delivered consistently to Keller's specification, his name won't appear on them, said Seabourn Executive Chef Tony Egger. "The dishes seem simple, but they are very complex," Egger said. "There are a lot of components."
In the main galley, a special refrigerator houses the ingredients for the Keller dishes. The chef stakes his claim on using ingredients from only top-notch providers (in his restaurants, you receive a sheet about where all of the vegetables, meat and fish are from), and has asked Seabourn to do the same for his dishes. "He's very product and technique driven," Egger said. "You have to have the best product." That's adjusted the line's buying patterns.
Finding Keller on Seabourn Sojourn
Even though I knew that the Keller menu was still a work in progress on Sojourn, I decided to seek out as many dishes as I could (hey, all in the name of journalism). It turned out to be easy -- despite waiter secrecy -- because the items came with more elaborate descriptions of the ingredients. Here's what we found:
*The Restaurant. Our first sign of Keller came in The Restaurant, Sojourn's main dining room, thanks to a little help from our tablemates. The top item on the Inspirations side of the menu seemed just a touch more descriptive than the others: The citrus-crusted filet of king salmon came with creamed Arrowleaf spinach and red rice porridge. "Is that a Keller dish?" I asked our waiter. "It's a new dish," the server replied. Despite the cagey reply, I ordered it. Our table pronounced it delicious -- even those who didn't like salmon.
At the end of the meal, the waiter confirmed, a tad sheepishly, that the dish was part of the Keller menu. When the partnership is fully implemented, Keller dishes will be listed on a separate sheet under his name within The Restaurant menu, Egger said. Sojourn passengers will be able to order an entire Keller meal, or pick and choose between his menu and the regular selections for The Restaurant.
*Patio Grill. We played a similar cat-and-mouse game with the servers at the Patio Grill, the ship's poolside venue. "We have a special sausage today," a waiter told us one day. After telling us specifically what kind of meat it was, as well as where the bun and mustard came from, he refused to confirm it was a Keller offering. We ordered it anyway. It was indeed delicious, and far tastier than a regular hot dog. If it wasn't a Keller dish, it should have been.
Another day, we saw a fellow passenger chowing down on an amazing-looking burger. "What IS that?" we asked. The day's special: a Napa burger, made with a thick patty of RR Ranch beef, served with a five-year aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese, a house-made Thousand Island dressing on a towering potato brioche bun. We had to have it.
Although its size made it hard to eat, we managed. Surely, this "Napa" burger came from Keller? The server confessed. Yes, the Napa burger was a new offering. Yes, it came from Keller. And yes, everyone onboard loved it. We know we did.
*The Colonnade. When most foodies think of Thomas Keller, they think of his big-name restaurants, such as The French Laundry or Per Se. Not everyone knows that he also runs a casual restaurant in Yountville, Ad Hoc, that serves family-style meals.
It's this concept that Sojourn imported to the Colonnade, Sojourn's casual eatery. On three separate nights on our cruise, the waiter-served venue turned into a version of Ad Hoc, with a special menu, music, wine glasses and even uniforms for the staff. Reservations were required; it wasn't listed as Keller-influenced in the daily menus we received in our suite.
We attended two of the meals in the Colonnade. You knew that Seabourn was trying something different as soon as you entered the restaurant. Cheery songs from the 60s, such as "Mellow Yellow" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice," played throughout the room, at a slightly higher volume than on a usual night. Our regular waiters appeared in black jeans and wine tumblers were placed on the table.
On our first visit, the four-course menu featured hickory smoked BBQ ribs, with baked beans, braised greens, corn pone and whipped honey butter. The starter salad was made from gem lettuce, with slow baked beets, radish, fried capers and chopped egg, served with green goddess dressing. After the entree came a cheese course of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, with Maldon salted flat bread and Blue Apron ale mustard. A short blurb on the back of the menu noted information about the meal's purveyors.
Looking around, we noticed the dining room much less busy than normal. Our server said that reservations were purposely kept low as they were trying out the menu. While this may be true, there seemed to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm at other tables. After struggling with the ribs (which were tasty, but dry), a couple next to us got up and left after the main course. That's a pity because the dessert, a potted cheesecake with poached blueberries and vanilla Chantilly, ended up being the highlight of the night.
"Ribs are challenging for our international guests," our waiter noted. That could be true; Seabourn delivers menus to passengers the night before, so the BBQ menu may simply not have appealed to the clientele. Or people might not have understood that "family style" meant a Keller meal; we had tablemates who were disappointed they had missed it.
Our second visit turned out more successful. The menu entree, a RR Ranch rib chop, came perfectly cooked, with blistered asparagus and Santa Maria remoulade. The whipped Yukon potatoes were so good, we ordered another pot. A Waldorf salad with crisp chicories, fuji apples, white wine poached currents, candied walnuts and Maytag dressing was delicious. For the cheese course, we were served Humboldt Fog -- perhaps the best known cheese in California -- with Marshall's Farm honey and grilled country bread. We were so full, we could only attempt a few bites of dessert, chocolate silk pie with whipped Chantilly.
Was Seabourn's version of Ad Hoc a success? While we liked having a change from the more formal style of dining, we're not sure that other Seabourn passengers will, at least those who are more traditional. If the concept does break out into its own separate restaurant, Seabourn would do well to give passengers information about Ad Hoc and what dishes it serves, so people don't go in expecting a high-end French Laundry experience.
*Restaurant 2: Transforming Restaurant 2 -- a contemporary alternative restaurant that serves five-course tasting menus -- into a Keller restaurant might be the most controversial part of the project. The move won't take place until Sojourn enters drydock, but we heard from two corporate sources that the space would be turned into a Keller restaurant, with the possibility of live music.
"We've had it a long time," Egger said of Restaurant 2. "It's a little tired." Perhaps. But reservations there are still a hot ticket; we tried to book and had to wait five days for the first opening. We met some passengers who loved Restaurant 2 so much, they went as many as three times during the 14-day sailing. Losing it may be hard.
Loyal Eaters and New Passengers
The biggest challenge that the Keller partnership faces is a good one to have: Seabourn's cuisine is already top notch. After 14 days, we came away impressed with dining in all venues in the ship; there were very few missteps. Some passengers wondered why the line was even bothering with a celebrity chef. "Keller is for tourists," sneered one Los Angeles-based passenger on our ship.
For some passengers, Seabourn ships are as homey as their local country club; change comes slow and is not always welcome. A few international passengers told me that Keller was "an American chef" and they worried that he would change the menu to fit an American palate.
And finally, Seabourn passengers do not like taking no for an answer (and the service-oriented staff certainly do not like saying it). Insistence on meat being cooked or served a certain way might not go down well with people used to having things to their liking. We predict that while the Keller edict may start out strict, the dining rooms will have to become more flexible to avoid complaints.
While the line figures out how to please its loyalists, it also hopes to leverage the partnership to attract new passengers. Is Thomas Keller a big enough name to attract first-time customers to Seabourn? We did meet some foodies, on the younger side of Seabourn's demographic, who were excited about the partnership; there's no denying that, among Americans at least, Keller still has a significant cachet that's bound to set the line apart from some of its luxury competitors.
In this regard, Egger has no concerns. "Luxury is about options," he said. "To get Thomas Keller in is an enhancement." Overall, we agree.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor