Celebrity chefs and destination restaurants at sea are as powerful as ever, with Jose Garces, Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller and Nobu Matsuhisa just some of the established players setting sail with international cruise lines. But, while the benefits of teaming up with world-renowned culinary names are significant, the challenges – sourcing, logistics, consistency and communication – mean it’s not an easy partnership model for cruise operators to get right.

More international cruise companies are buddying up with world-famous chefs in an effort to meet guests’ expectations for unique, high-quality dining at sea, just as they’re used to on land. While Royal Caribbean teamed up with award-winning chef Michael Schwartz for its speciality 150 Central Park restaurant in 2011, and brought Jamie Oliver’s authentic Italian eatery Jamie’s Italian on board in 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line added Jose Garces to the list of celebrity chefs with eateries at sea in 2015, when it announced that the Iron Chef star would bring his Latin-inspired cuisine to two restaurants on the 4,200-passenger Norwegian Escape.

“It’s certainly more common to see cruise lines collaborating with recognisable chefs, and they have evolved with the rising popularity of television cooking shows such as Top Chef, Chopped and Iron Chef,” says Royal Caribbean International’s vice-president of food and beverage operations, John Suley. “Social media has been a key factor in the major attention as well, because fans can directly interact with their favourite chefs on a daily basis.”

Recipe for success

Since the line started working with celebrity chefs on its Oasis-class ships, Royal Caribbean’s approach to culinary partnerships has evolved to the point where it has a tried and tested method for choosing its collaborators.

“We realised early on that collaborations with notable chefs are popular with our guests, and we have even gone further to approach each of our partnerships in a unique way, giving them the Royal Caribbean ‘wow factor’ that we are known for,” Suley notes. “Today, we look for partners that are creative and think outside the box, and share our core values. It’s also very important that they are well known in their craft. Globally, we also keep in mind partners’ international reach.”

Similarly, at Norwegian Cruise Line, there are certain criteria that potential partner chefs have to meet. “We look for chefs who, first and foremost, are known for their quality and talent, and whose dishes our guests will be excited about experiencing, whether they are familiar with their restaurants or have never dined there before,” explains the line’s vice-president of food and beverage operations and development, Karl Muhlberger. “We work very closely with our marketing department to research whom our guests may be interested in and are familiar with. The region the ship sails to and where its home port is are also important when we pick new partners.”

With the right celebrity chef, the benefits of a culinary partnership are wide-ranging, with advantages from operations to promotional opportunities. “The strength in being like-minded is immensely beneficial,” Suley says. “Our day-to-day culture is based on creating a high-quality culinary experience, and chefs Jamie Oliver and Michael Schwartz are as dedicated as we are to this. They are well known for their sourcing standards and seeing a precise level of quality in their dishes, and that is exactly how we approach all of our menu items.”

The opportunities for cross promotion – exposing cruise lines and celebrity chefs to one another’s respective fan bases – and leveraging expertise, popularity and reputation, can also be immensely beneficial for both parties.

“When you team up with those who are well respected and share your core values – innovation, authenticity and passion, in our case – it’s a recipe for success,” Suley summarises. “The best partnerships are those that provide guests with a memorable experience, while the chef and the cruise line continue to evolve together.”

That said, it is crucial not to put too much attention on celebrity partnerships to the detriment of a line’s other culinary offerings, Muhlberger is keen to stress.

“For Norwegian, we have many loyal and return guests that love our speciality dining concepts, so we often see that new cruisers gravitate towards the celebrity chef while return guests select our on-board speciality dining concepts that they know and love,” he says.

Balancing act

Operating a restaurant at sea is very different to opening one on land. Royal Caribbean alone, for example, has 25 ships, which are constantly moving from port to port, spanning more than 250 destinations in 64 countries. The logistics of supplying the line’s ships with every ingredient a celebrity chef wants to see on their menu, therefore, requires a very specific level of attention to detail for quality, consistency and scheduling.

"The best partnerships are those that provide guests with a memorable experience, while the chef and the cruise line continue to evolve together."

It’s a similar story on Norwegian Cruise Line. “Celebrity chefs don’t like to make compromises, and deviations from food specifications are not negotiable,” notes Muhlberger. “So it can sometimes be a challenge to source speciality food products with short seasons for our large organisation.”

The answer? Communication, communication, communication, say our cruise leaders.

“An ongoing two-way conversation is key to integrating, planning, getting things done and tackling any challenge together,” Suley says, adding that an established supply chain network entirely dedicated to the food and beverage side of the business doesn’t hurt either.

Supply, however, is just one facet of the cruise line and celebrity chef partnership. From creating the concepts to choosing the tableware, both parties must be involved every step of the way. At Royal Caribbean, this starts with working together to create entirely new restaurant concepts and menus, although these will always include some of the chef’s signature dishes.

“It all involves our teams at the Miami headquarters, plus creative sessions, ship visits, tastings and restaurant design – even down to the most specific of details, like the tableware and linens,” says Suley. “We’ll also develop materials, including operating procedures, to host immersive orientations and training with our crew members on board.”

Training is equally important at Norwegian Cruise Line, as Muhlberger says: “Our partners spend time with our development team during the menu-engineering process, and from there they bring a training team to the ship(s) for the implementation.” Later, there are generally two annual cruises where the partners continue training and meet with guests, or host celebrity-chef dinners on board.

Future development

Of course, over time, partnerships evolve and, in some cases, are switched out for other offerings. “Continuous enhancements are a major component of the overall partnership and, together, we review our guests’ feedback to identify any tweaks and keep things fresh,” Suley says, adding that the team frequently reviews where its ships are sailing, what its guests are saying, the competitive landscape and the brand’s future. “At times, our brand can take a different direction, and that can mean updates to our partnerships along with other aspects of the business.”

For the foreseeable future, there is no indication that cruisers’ desire for celebrity restaurants will fade. On top of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, lines including Seabourn, Crystal Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line have also seen success, partnering with Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa and Guy Fieri respectively. The key is to balance these recognisable names with an overall offering that caters for everyone on board.

“It’s in Royal Caribbean’s DNA to innovate and push the envelope creatively,” Suley concludes. “We stay abreast of the latest trends and opportunities that would be a great fit, but also tap our talented international team of chefs on board to bring our dining experiences to life for more than five million guests each year.

“We have a very successful and ever-evolving programme, and will keep doing whatever receives positive reviews and makes our guests’ vacations a memorable adventure. At the end of the day, it is the desires and preferences of our guests that drive our decisions.”