Is Celebrity Downgrading Its Main Dining Room Experience To Boost The Bottom Line In Its Specialty Restaurants?

Jacques Van Staden, vice president of culinary operations for Celebrity Cruises, says that the cornerstone of the Celebrity brand is the dining experience. 'That is really what we are about: the food, the wine and the service. That's why it's so frustrating when people think we are downgrading the experience. We just don't. It is quite the contrary. We do dining focus groups just to figure out how we can better serve our guests. We're always asking, How do we deliver an experience that guests will treasure and that they will remember?'

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.”

Continually Improving

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.”

Iron Chef Cat Cora performs a cooking demonstration during Celebrity Cruises' first Food Network cruise. More than 150 people signed on to attend hands-on workshops and demonstrations and meet the celebrity chefs. All who I spoke with had high praise for Celebrity's cuisine, in the main dining room and beyond.

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.

Read more: Celebrity Cruises ‘Qsine’, The New Food Concept on Celebrity Eclipse

Join the Conversation

Marvin Dolen says:

If Jaques Van Staden, vice-president of culinary operations for Celebrity Cruises, is true to his word about his assertion that Celebrity’s food quality has not been downgraded, why then would Conde Nast Traveller’s Gold List, January, 2012, ” the bible ” of the world’s best hotels and cruise lines, rate Celebrity’s food quality as the very lowest of the 12 cruise lines listed?

Rachel says:

My husband and I traveled on serveral Celebrity Cruises during the period of 1990 through 1996 (a total of seven). After returning to that cruiseline on 2005 and 2010, we noticed that the food quality on the Celebrity Cruises had diminished consideraby. We were terribly disappointed. The food quality has become no better than what is served at Denny’s or Ruby Tuesday. We decided to take our yearly vactions to New Orleans, where we are sure to get consistently good quality food.

plutoface says:

It’s not a vicious rumor. I sailed in Celebrity the last ten years every two years and I noticed the difference. Particularly on my last cruise a few months ago. A cruise that was a repeat of the exact same cruise of seven years ago and the food quality in the main dining room was mediocre at best compared to the same cruise 7 years ago. Celebrity thinks that by running artiicles and adding comments to blogs it’s going to change people’s perception. Reality is reality and you won’t fool many people by just stating otherwise.

John B says:

Without a doubt, they are driving folks to,the premium rooms, now at $45/person. The diningroom French onin soup was the worst I,had ever had and that is tough for this ship staple. Lipton makes a better bowl. The desserts were plain and uninspred with little variation save for a good tiramisu. I am not suprised at their cellar position for ship food. We were very dissappointed although the buffet was better than on HAL. As so the service…the innexperienced waiter tood us to be sure and give him at least an 8 on the survey we will receive. We gave him a 6 and felt generous. If you want and 8 or above, try working for it. But with an automatic 18% in your pocket, no need to try. This line really misses the boat on many levels. We are going back to HAL, where at least the staff is friendly and appreciate, rather than expect, a tip.

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