The celebrity chef is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous figure at sea, with branded restaurants, specially selected menus, and even on-board cooking demonstrations all the rage. But is there more to the rise of the celebrity chef than a marketing opportunity? Michael Smith, senior vice president of marine hotel operations at Holland America, discusses the challenges and benefits of partnering with the restaurant world’s leading lights.
One is the spiky-haired star of the American Food Network. Another was dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the British restaurant scene. Still another is the self-styled ‘naked chef’ who fought to revolutionise school dinners. And yet while Guy Fieri, Marco Pierre White and Jamie Oliver are hardly peas in a pod, the three have a surprising affinity: all have teamed up with cruise lines to take their brands to sea.
These partnerships build on thriving restaurant empires. Fieri gives his name to ‘Guy’s Burger Joint’ aboard five Carnival ships, White offers fine dining on P&O Cruises, and Oliver will open branches of ‘Jamie’s Italian’ on Royal Caribbean’s new Quantum-class vessels.
In doing so, they join an impressive roll call of celebrity chefs on cruise ships. There is Nobu Matsuhisa, a master of Japanese-Peruvian fusion food, who came onboard Crystal Cruises as early as 2003. There is Fieri’s fellow Food Network star Geoffrey Zakarian (Norwegian Cruise Line), restaurant proprietor Todd English (Cunard Line) and the French three star chef Arnaud Lallement (Disney Cruise Line). This is not to mention Michel Roux, whose 17-year stint with Celebrity Cruises might be said to have kickstarted the whole phenomenon.
Keep your council
If such ventures smack of gimmickry, it is fair to say the industry has moved on from the experimentation stage. Joining forces with a big name chef is known to have big benefits: in its crudest, most transactional form, it’s a valuable marketing tool for the cruise line, and an expansion opportunity for the chef. These days, it seems that barely a month goes by without a new partnership hitting the waves.
“Celebrity chefs have great appeal now,” points out Michael Smith, senior vice president of marine hotel operations at Holland America. “If you look at our guests 20 years ago, they didn’t have too much of an idea what good food was. With the advent of the Food Network and other reality cooking shows, people have a lot more knowledge about food. Even the smallest towns have high-end restaurants where people dine out, and they expect to see that on cruise ships.”
Holland America aims to exceed these expectations. With the inception of its Culinary Council in 2010, the line has made a firm commitment to venturing beyond typical cruise fare. This has entailed teaming up with several well-known names.
“The Culinary Council came about as a reaction to a lot of the other cruise lines that align themselves with celebrity chefs, and we thought we’d try to do something with a little twist,” says Smith. “That would be to develop four or five chefs as a council, which would give us advice in culinary matters and what’s happening in the food industry, as opposed to aligning with just one chef and putting all our eggs in one basket.”
Spearheaded by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin, the Culinary Council is composed from Jonnie Boer, David Burke, Jacques Torres, Elizabeth Falkner, and most recently Mark Best. Its role is primarily consultative: the chefs share their insights on menus and culinary options, and meet regularly with Holland America executives to suggest improvements.
Today, around 20-25% of the main courses served come directly from one of the Culinary Council members. While guests still have the option to indulge in traditional, pre-set dining at fixed times, the watchword is flexibility of choice. That means tapping in to the wisdom – now firmly entrenched across the industry – that a variety of dining venues is best.
Along with the main dining room and buffet area, its ships feature several other restaurants, some of which come with a surcharge attached. These give the celebrity chefs their real chance to shine. For example, on certain ships, once per cruise, the Pinnacle Grill becomes De Librije. Given that Jonnie Boer’s original De Librije – a three Michelin star restaurant in the Netherlands – is about as high-end as it gets, this is a rare chance for guests to enjoy top-notch dishes for a knock-off price.
Staying in touch
Still, Holland America is perhaps unusual in that its celebrity chefs’ influence permeates its dining philosophy as a whole. Rather than being confined to separate venues (as is the case for say Marco Pierre White or Jamie Oliver) they cast their eye over every dinner menu and supply around 20-30 recipes each.
This serves to ground even the most basic menus in contemporary culinary trends, replicating what guests are likely to experience on their local high street. The real challenge lies not in determining guests’ preferences, but in adapting the on-shore dining experience to the operational challenges of a cruise ship.
“We have an executive chef team that will go out to their restaurants and train with them in how to produce the dishes,” explains Smith. “While their restaurants are probably serving 100 to 200 covers a night, we have to scale it up to a 2,000 passenger environment, so there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about which dishes we take and how we manipulate them for that bigger environment.”
Through taking such a studied approach, Holland America can fend off the inevitable accusation that its Culinary Council is no more than a piece of branding. After all, if cruise ships offer fine dining irrespective, it may be hard to see what further value a well-known chef can add. Is it just about the lustre attached to the name above the door?
It is clear that image creation is a part of what appeals. Smith concedes that the partnerships do lead to ‘good cross-promotional brand awareness’ – in other words, that there are opportunities here for ship and chef alike to plug their wares.
That said, it is less about pulling a marketing stunt and more about a kind of symbiosis. Through signing up a celebrity chef, cruise lines stand to benefit from the trust attached to that name (however upscale your original restaurant, it will be something of an unknown quantity in a way a Marco Pierre White joint is not). Meanwhile the chefs involved have chance to garner thousands of new fans.
“We encourage them to come and sail with us, because when they sail with us they’ll do cooking demonstrations and lectures, and it’s a good promotion for their restaurants ashore,” says Smith. “We do promotions with them and feature them in our brochures.”
Worthy of the name
When passengers have the option of meeting the chef, this can be a major draw. It is a strategy that has worked for the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa, who set sail on Crystal Serenity in 2012. Likewise, Jacques Pepin has hosted a ten-day cruise on the Oceania Marina, and Food Network presenter Paula Deen has made appearances on the Celebrity Eclipse. Some guests will book cruises specifically on this basis, keen to secure a photo opportunity with their favourite culinary personality.
With the benefits clear to see, the question really becomes, how can these marketing opportunities be optimised? How can cruise lines ensure their chef partners represent a good fit with their own brand?
At Holland America, the chefs need to be just famous enough. Since the Culinary Council is quite an involved job, it is imperative that its members have time to spare.
“The ones with a very big name who are on the TV a lot or have 25 restaurants around the world, those are the ones we try to avoid,” says Smith. “We look for younger ones who are making a name for themselves, or who have not sold their name or expanded too much – they’ve got to have the time to devote to our concept.”
At other lines, however, the chef’s role is relatively limited, confined mostly to starting up the restaurant and overseeing it from afar. This means there is scope for higher profile names, albeit in a less ‘hands on’ capacity.
Demographic factors also come into play, in that it’s important to tailor the menus to the provenance of guests onboard. It stands to reason that Food Network stars are best matched to a US clientele. Meanwhile, at Holland America the addition of an Australian chef (Mark Best) was designed to reflect an upsurge in the number of antipodean guests.
Overall, we may suspect there is some overlap between cruise ship aficionados and the fans of celebrity chefs. Cruise ships are known for good food and ready-made entertainment; celebrity chefs sit at a similar intersection. It seems that, in marrying the two, cruise lines have stumbled across a match made in marketing heaven. And, given the popularity of such ventures, the experience is likely to be better than the norm for passengers.
“Guests know these names, and they know this cuisine, and so they’re much more likely to want to see their dishes on their menus and to try them,” says Smith. “Where else can you try a three star Michelin chef for free in a main dining room? Aligning with celebrity chefs really does have a distinct appeal. It’s pretty much expected these days.”
This article appears in the Autumn 2014 edition of World Cruise Industry Review.