There are accusations in the cruise community that Celebrity Cruises is downgrading the quality of cuisine in its main dining room in order to drive guests to speciality restaurants, where on ships like Celebrity Solstice, cover charges range from $5 per person to $35 per person.
On board Celebrity Solstice this week, I put the question to Jacques Van Staden, vice president of culinary operations.
“It’s a vicious rumor,” Van Staden told me during an interview in Silk Harvest, where the cover charge for dinner is $25 per person. “The specialty restaurants weren’t designed to drive up revenue. What people don’t realize is that the service charge goes 100 percent to our staff. That’s their gratuities.”
The notion of downgrading the quality of food runs contrary to Celebrity’s corporate philosophy, Van Staden’s says. From President and CEO Dan Hanrahan on down the chain, the mandate is that any action taken on Celebrity’s behalf cannot adversely affect the guest experience. Sure, Celebrity seeks cost-savings like any company, but those cost-savings typically come from achieving greater efficiencies, not cutting back on quality.
“We are never allowed to cut back on the product,” Van Staden says. “I could literally pick up the phone and say cut all the steaks from six ounces to four ounces, and we could save, hypothetically, $15 million annually. But it doesn’t work like that. We work harder to find efficiencies so that we can save money and take that money and reinvest it in a better product.”
One noticeable example is a new program to procure seafood. Celebrity recently switched from procuring frozen fish to procuring “frozen at sea fish,” where the catch is frozen within 15 minutes after being caught. “Obviously it comes with a higher premium,” Van Staden says, “but it’s a better quality fish.”
On my sailing, the specialty restaurants were booked to capacity by guests who desired an intimate dining experience outside the main dining room.
Some of the specialty restaurants offer opportunities to experience dining that would cost much more on land. Murano, for example, offers a near Michelin-star dining experience (to my knowledge, Michelin does not distribute stars to cruise ship restaurants) for $35 per person, allowing guests to enjoy an exquisite dining event in a beautiful setting.
While guests appreciate specialty restaurants, Van Staden says that cruise lines are not often rated by their specialty restaurants. “It’s about what the main restaurant and lido deliver,” he says. “Those are our two main focuses. We revamped our buffet experience. We increased the variety. We changed the menus. For the main restaurant, we invest a lot of money and a lot of time to continuously improve it. Our goal is to separate ourselves from the sea of sameness from the main restaurants on other cruise lines.”
Many guests never venture beyond the main dining room or the Oceanview (lido) Café. My own impression of these two dining venues during my sailing: the cuisine, presentation and execution is excellent. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointment in either restaurant, and I am traveling with 150 foodies who are participating in Celebrity’s first Food Network cruise. None have expressed disappointment. To the contrary, all who I have spoke with have expressed praise.
So put those rumors to rest: There’s no truth to them, and in fact, the truth appears to be quite the opposite. Celebrity is raising the bar in the main dining room instead of lowering it.