On a recent Eastern Caribbean sailing from Miami aboard the 4,200-guest Norwegian Escape, TMR contributor Donna Tunney sat down with the ship's executive chef, Charles Fernandez, to chat about cruise cuisine trends.
TMR: What are you seeing in terms of how food choices have changed among cruise passengers in recent years?
Chef Charles: More of our guests are looking for healthy options. We serve more vegetarian dishes now, and more and different types of salads. We use olive oil more today versus butter. Many people now want grilled fish rather than fried, and chicken breast is a more popular choice as well. However, our two most popular menu items continue to be steak and salmon.
TMR: What about special diets, such as gluten-free and kosher meals?
Chef Charles: We are preparing more gluten-free meals, definitely, and of course we've always offered kosher dishes. It's helpful if the customer tells us in advance about any requirements. Many times the travel agents will let us know this information before the guest even gets on the ship, and that's perfect, because we know ahead of time and we can make sure the guest is getting exactly what he or she wants.
TMR: How does the line decide what kinds of specialty venues to offer?
Chef Charles: Well, it's all about what the people want. For instance, we added the Food Republic venue, which is a sushi food court, since sushi has become so popular. But we have alternative restaurants to suit many different tastes, like Le Bistro for French cuisine, Cagney's Steakhouse and La Cucina for Italian food.
TMR: In terms of venue choices, how do the alternative restaurants stack up?
Chef Charles: Cagney's Steakhouse is the No. 1 most popular on Escape, and then after that Le Bistro. But all of the alternative venues are fully booked virtually every night of every cruise. On an average night about 2,700 guests will eat in the complimentary dining rooms, Taste and Savor, while the remaining 1,500 or so will choose a specialty venue. The majority of the people who intend to eat in the specialty restaurants will buy a specialty dining package. (Reporter's note: Dining packages start at $69 per person for a three-dinner package.)
TMR: How has Freestyle Dining, which did away with the traditional two seatings for dinner process, changed the way food is prepared in the kitchens?
Chef Charles: It has made a huge difference in how and when meals are prepared because rather than cooking for half the guests all at one time, for each seating, now we prepare each meal as the order comes in from the wait staff, rather than in advance. Back in 2014 we installed a new computer system that shows the chefs, on a screen in the kitchens, every individual order as it is placed. When the wait staff leaves a table with an order he or she goes directly to a computer and puts in the order. Then, in real time, the chefs are seeing that order on their screen. So everything is prepared in an ongoing way – not all at once. This allows the dish to be created in the most fresh way.
TMR: How long have you worked for Norwegian?
Chef Charles: For 20 years, and I've been on Escape for a year and a half.