On 23 November 2013, the Crystal Symphony will depart from Miami and head for Rio. Taking in six Brazilian ports and two Caribbean islands before Sugarloaf Mountain even appears on the horizon, it sounds like the most idyllic of itineraries. Do not be surprised, however, if a number of voyagers struggle to even make it up on deck; the kitchen is where you’ll find most of the action.

For this will be one of Crystal Cruises’ much-feted Wine & Food Festival voyages, where guests can experience, taste and learn from new cultures without even the threat of a tan.

Among the throng of vacationers on board will be Portugal’s 2012 Chef of the Year Hans Neuner; Rob Wilson, executive chef at the luxury Montage Laguna Beach resort in California; master mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim; and renowned wine historian Nina Wemyss.

Events will include wine tastings, culinary demonstrations, cooking and cocktail classes, and seven-course gastronomic journeys of discovery prepared by guest chefs. This is all underpinned by the sourcing of local ingredients and products at port stops along the way.

A taste of place

While it may be an extreme example, such a hands-on, adventurous, localised approach is a clear example of how far one’s expectations of on-board food and beverage have come over recent years. For too long, the stereotype persisted of rich, unimaginative food, prepared without even a passing nod to sense of place or season. Now, guests don’t only want a taste of place; they want to know how to cook it as well.

And Crystal is not alone in recognising a growth in demand for more challenging, educational culinary experiences. Marco Pierre White, Atul Kochhar, Olly Smith and patissier Eric Lanlard have all sailed with P&O this year, leading an array of interactive sessions; Fred Olsen and Saga are both holding wine-themed cruises; Geoffrey Zakarian has undertaken a number of sailings on board Norwegian’s newest ship, Norwegian Breakaway; Silversea has developed a stellar list of guest chefs to underpin its culinary programme; and sushi master Nobu Matsuhisa was teaching, mingling, dining and cooking with Crystal earlier this summer. In fact, there is now not a single operator, large or small, high-end or mass market, without some sort of culinary programme that goes beyond merely feeding one’s guests.

"Without even leaving the ship, guests can see, taste, smell, feel, and learn about the ingredients, dishes, and beverages that only local foodies would know best, from an obscure ingredient to the gourmet side of regional culture," enthuses Toni Neumeister, vice-president of food and beverage operations.

"Creating a sense of place is a particularly strong trend taking hold at all levels of cruising. Guests expect to see destinations and regions reflected on the plate."

"The guests have changed and are now far more educated gastronomically. It is no longer enough to follow trends; we have to lead them as well."

This is a crusade that Neumeister is leading from the front. "The cruise experience was not so focused on good-quality produce in the early days," he says, reflecting on more than a quarter-century spent observing the industry’s evolution. "Over the past 15 years or so, we’ve seen a gradual understanding that a cruise ship is, in essence, a floating resort hotel, and standards have risen dramatically."

Creating a sense of place is a particularly strong trend taking hold at all levels of cruising. Guests expect to see destinations and regions reflected on the plate. Cookery classes, demonstrations and special dinners are a great way of delivering a taste of, and connection to, one’s locale.

"That is something I feel passionate about," says Neumeister. "Yes, we have to cover all the bases, but we are also under obligation to offer something that reflects the area the ship is visiting. The guests enjoy it, the chefs enjoy it and, besides all that, it makes perfect sense, as we are buying all our produce in these areas."

Finding the right talent

The sourcing of local produce underpins Crystal’s Wine & Food Festivals, but it is not restricted to special cruises. "The challenges with catering at sea are not so different from those associated with cooking on dry land," he says. "Because you are sailing to new areas, however, it takes more time, investment and commitment to find and build relationships with the right suppliers. Doing so is integral and it is an area where I feel Crystal really shines.

"The bottom line comes down to what you’re prepared to spend. When I think about the money we are pumping into our speciality restaurants, it keeps me awake at night. But the level of produce has got to match the level of commitment. Follow this through and you can cater for people of all tastes while offering a quality product."

Another challenge, although not one faced exclusively by the luxury cruise industry, is the difficulty of recruiting and retaining the right staff. Bringing big names on board, be it for cookery schools or to open destination restaurants, helps make the cruise ship a legitimate destination for an ambitious chef, but the VP counters that Crystal is hardly dependent upon the patronage of celebrity cooks in order to attract and retain talent.

"Choice is not enough. With the shift in the age profile on board and the restricted holiday time available to our US guests, you cannot afford for any element of the experience to be anything less than perfect."

"There’s the corporate chef, executive chefs and chefs de cuisine for each speciality restaurant," Neumeister explains. "Somebody in my position should never fall into the trap of writing a menu and simply telling those further down the line to execute it. This is a team process."

These teams also play a major role in leading cookery demonstrations and classes across all Crystal cruises. Is it difficult to find people who are up to the job? Surely there are enough landside opportunities for chefs of genuine talent?

"It’s a challenge for the luxury hotel business worldwide," Neumeister responds. "The executive chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas once told me that he needed 1,100 chefs for the year ahead and had no idea where to find them. Of course, when you have a name such as Robuchon, Keller or Ducasse behind you, it’s less of a challenge."

Hans Neuner, who worked at Carnival over decade ago and has since gone on to earn two Michelin stars, proves that there is no reason one won’t find future Kellers and Robuchons plying their trade at sea. A traditional criticism of cruise catering is that it prioritises choice before quality. However, knowing one’s guests, making F&B a major selling point of one’s brand and developing a customer base that is genuinely interested in food and drink engenders creativity and lifts standards. Neumeister acknowledges that an older generation of guests still expects to see some favourite dishes on the menu – steak and grilled salmon aren’t going anywhere – but the shifting demographics of passengers coming on board increases the pressure to go beyond obvious crowd pleasers.

"Choice is not enough," he says. "With the shift in the age profile on board and the restricted holiday time available to our US guests, you cannot afford for any element of the experience to be anything less than perfect. One of the first things a potential guest wants to know about is the cuisine. We need to execute and maintain a culinary philosophy and commitment."