When it comes to assessing just who is responsible for shaping the way we eat and drink aboard the world’s premier cruise lines, Frank Weber would appear in that lineup. In his previous post at Norwegian Cruise Line, he was responsible for driving innovation in food and beverage for all new builds, introducing modern dining concepts like small plates and globally influenced cuisine. He also spent a decade as vice president of food and beverage at Royal Caribbean International, where he was a key creative driver behind the restaurants on offer on the Oasis of the Seas, which debuted with 24 dining experiences.
Many of the on-board concepts were industry firsts, including the flexible dining scheme, as well as ‘150 Central Park’, the first high-end restaurant on a non-niche cruise ship with an in-house celebrity chef and farm-to-table cuisine. And yet, in his latest role as senior vice-president of hotel operations at Virgin Voyages, he was tasked with his biggest challenge yet.
“Virgin, as a brand, has never entered an industry to do what everyone else is doing,” Weber explains. “We set out to treat our ship more like a small city full of different eating experiences – delivering an epic culinary journey that upholds transparent, ethical and responsible sourcing practices.”
AvroKO Hospitality Group’s Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie was also brought in to help develop the overall culinary programming strategy and identify experts in various cuisine types. He said that inspiration came from some of the best dining spots in the world, and that the ‘vibe and energy’ of the food and beverage outlets was just as important as the cuisine.
The amount of dining options available on the Scarlet Lady – each a unique experience.
Together, the pair have created a dining experience unlike anything else in the cruise industry. When the Scarlet Lady sets sail out of Miami for the Caribbean in 2020, passengers will have access to more than 20 distinct dining options, all serving made-to-order food using fresh ingredients. Take, for example, the 5,800ft2 Wake, which offers surf and turf, overlooking – you guessed it – the rear of the ship. The most glamorous restaurant on board, passengers enter via a grand staircase before being served a theatrical take on steak and seafood, accompanied by cocktails from a table-side cart or wine from the restaurant’s sommelier-led magnum programme.
Elsewhere, The Test Kitchen, which was inspired by Auguste Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine, is part cooking school and part restaurant. ‘Sailors’, as Virgin calls its passengers, are presented with a menu in the form of an ingredients list and discover how the chef combines the list of flavours throughout the course of the meal. The minimalist, mint-green venue also hosts cooking classes, mixology lessons and coffee labs, as well as ‘late-night lock-ins’ where passengers can raid the chef’s fridge and put together their own ‘midnight feast’.
At Korean BBQ joint Geonbae (‘bottoms up’ in Korean), every meal starts with a complimentary round of soju, with guests encouraged to take part in ‘lively Korean drinking games’. Further along the ship, the veggie restaurant and juice bar Razzle Dazzle allows guests to pick between a ‘nice’ plant-based menu or the ‘naughty’ options, which include meat add-ons and smoothies spiked with boozy shots. There’s also a drag queen brunch; communal-style Italian restaurant Extra Virgin, which serves regionally inspired food, with fresh pasta handmade daily; and Pink Agave offers a range of authentic Mexican dishes. Elsewhere, The Pizza Place allows guests to design their own bespoke pizzas; and the beach-club-inspired Dock focuses on Mediterranean small plates.
But the pièce de résistance is likely to be The Galley. Modelled on the informal food halls that are taking over from food trucks as the top foodie destinations in major cities around the world, it features a mix of shops and food carts, including a panini shop, a taco shack, a sushi bar with bento boxes, a popsicle stand and a 24-hour American diner.
Breaking with tradition
When Oasis of the Seas launched in 2008, ‘My Time Dining’ – a scheme wherein passengers could reserve a meal time between the hours of 6pm and 9.30pm, rather than sitting down at a set time every day – was a novelty. Now, Virgin Voyages has gone several steps further, putting paid to almost everything associated with traditional cruise dining – there’s no buffet, no main dining room, no dress code, no designated seating and certainly no assigned dining times. Instead, passengers can book a table, as if they were planning a night out on the town, or risk it as a walk-in. And all restaurant dining is included in the voyage fare.
Scarlet Lady will also break the mould when it comes to design. Through its Creative Collective, Virgin has engaged the talents of several world leading interior design studios, including Roman and Williams, Design Research Studio, Concrete Amsterdam and Softroom, to ensure that there will be no sign of the patterned carpets or traditional dining rooms so often associated with the cruise industry.
“There’s a Virgin twist on everything you’ll see aboard the Scarlet Lady, which means there will be no stuffy formalities, boring buffets or main dining rooms,” said Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, late last year. “Sailors are not going to want to leave our ship after they experience how we’ve designed our restaurants and tasted the dishes we are going to be serving up in 2020.”
Behind the scenes
The process of conceptualising and implementing a varied, high-quality food and beverage offering for a brand-new cruise ship is no picnic. Neither is it as glamorous as the finished products might have you believe.
As Weber explains, it starts with assigning restaurant and galley spaces on the general arrangement plan. “Several questions need to be answered,” he says. “Some of these are part of a chicken and egg dilemma of what comes first.”
These questions include: how many restaurants are needed? How many seats should each restaurant have? What kind of restaurant service will each restaurant serve? Will it be formal full-service, casual full-service, quick-service, self-service or buffet?
In this case, of course, the buffet option is off the table, partly because of the brand’s focus on reducing food waste. Virgin Voyages plans to reinvest the savings it makes in this area into cleaner technology and high-quality products.
The company has also announced plans to ban single-use plastics, including bottled water, condiment packets, shopping bags, food packaging, stirrers and takeaway coffee cups.
The next step is to determine the high-level concept of each outlet as this determines equipment requirements for each galley.
“For example, a steakhouse requires high-temperature grills, an Italian restaurant requires pasta cookers and most Asian restaurants require wok cooking,” Weber explains. “Each kitchen and restaurant layout has to be designed for each specific purpose. It’s never a one-size-fits-all.”
Weber and his team must also consider how to make each restaurant’s cooking processes as consistent and energy efficient as possible.
“One example would be the MKN FlexiComb oven technology – it can be set for specific cooking programs for specific products and recipes, which enhances quality and consistency,” Weber explains.
“The MKN FlexiChef has also replaced many pieces of equipment in the galleys, such as steam kettles and tilting pans, because they are highly inefficient pieces of equipment. With the MKN FlexiChef we can program recipes into the equipment for the cooks to follow for consistent high-quality execution and a significant reduction in cooking times.”
For Weber, behind-the-scenes layouts are just as important as what passengers see and experience front of house. “We believe that a well-designed and thought-out work space, which makes work easier and more efficient for the crew, will deliver better quality and service to our sailors, and therefore significantly enhance the experience,” he says.
When the first sailors board the adults-only Scarlet Lady in 2020, it will be tough to pick what cuisine to investigate first. In addition to the far-from-traditional food and beverage offering, there is also a tattoo parlour, a spa designed to mimic an underwater cave and a rope hammock suspended over the rear of the ship. Branson has told Condé Nast Traveler that he wants to attract customers who would never dream of going on a cruise ship. He’s certainly going the right way about it.