As long buffet lines give way to more individualized dining experiences in smaller, specialty restaurants on ships, a growing number of cruise lines are adding chef’s tables as one more appetizing option.
The term “chef’s table” suggests exclusivity — the ingredients, menu, setting, and intimacy of small group dining — as well as the expectation of doting attention from the chef and servers.
Chefs were once relegated to cooking in basements, having virtually no contact with their patrons, says Beth Forrest, an associate professor of gastronomy and history at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y. Fernand Point of La Pyramide in Vienne, France, was one of the first famous chefs to leave the kitchen on his own initiative to talk to guests in the dining room, she says. “Now diners crave personal interaction with chefs,” she adds.
Chef’s tables made their way to this country from Europe in the 1980s. “This coincided with the recognition of chefs as celebrities and cooking as a form of entertainment,” she says. “Increased air travel, mass media, and the surging popularity of the Food Network all coalesced to bring this about.”
At sea, meals are held either in the ship’s galley or an assigned room nearby. One advantage of eating in a galley is that passengers get a unique perspective into the wide-ranging dining operations of a ship, says Aly Bello, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines.
The chef takes center stage at these gastronomic extravaganzas that usually seat eight to 24 passengers. The relaxed, leisurely setting allows the chef to explain each course and interact with guests. The meals typically showcase special ingredients, sophisticated preparation methods, creative menus, eye-catching presentations, and attentive service. Fees vary between $10 and $1,000 or more, per person; some include pairings of champagne and fine wines.
Depending on the cruise line, ship, and length of the voyage, there may be a few chef’s tables over the course of a sailing or one every evening. Most offer fixed menus chosen by the chef. On some ships guests consult with the chef on a more personalized menu.
Princess Cruises, one of the pioneers in bringing the chef’s table to sea, still offers them across its fleet for up to 10 passengers per dinner on select nights. Guests are able to tour the galley at dinner, its busiest time. After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, they meet with the executive chef, who explains the menu before they move to the dining room for the main course .
On Silversea Cruises’ Silver Spirit, up to 24 guests pay $30 per person for a nine-course degustation (tasting) dinner available each evening at Seishin, the ship’s Asian fusion restaurant. Each table placed around the perimeter of the room offers guests a perfect vantage point to watch the chef prepare fresh sushi or sashimi at the large, circular table in the center. Non-alcoholic drinks and house wines are complimentary.
For wine aficionados, Crystal Cruises offers its Ultimate Vintage Room dinner on Crystal Symphony or Crystal Serenity once or twice each year. These unique dinners, collaborations between celebrity chefs and winemakers, feature some of the hardest-to-find wines in the world. In 2007, the former chef-owner of the world-famous Lutèce prepared one of these eight-course events. Depending on the wines featured, the lavish dinners cost about $1,000 per person.
On Oceania Cruises’ Marina and Riviera, guests reserve a meal at Privée, a private dining room. For a flat fee of $250 (not including alcohol) for a party up to 10 people, guests choose selections from two of the ship’s specialty restaurants, Polo Grill or Toscana, and meet with the chef.
You don’t necessarily need to be on a premium or luxury cruise to experience such a meal. On Disney Cruise Line’s Fantasy and Dream, at Chez Gusteau, there is a private dining room (within the adult-only Remy restaurant) inspired by the fictional restaurant in the Disney-Pixar film, “Ratatouille.” Tables are set with Frette linens, Riedel glassware, Christofle silverware, and Bernadaud porcelain. A French-inspired menu costs $75 per person with additional charges for wine and liquor.
Earlier this year, Norwegian Cruise Line expanded chef’s tables across its fleet. Once per cruise, as many as 12 diners take a galley tour, then mingle with the executive chef to discuss the details that have gone into the preparation of their nine-course meal. Wines paired with each course and gratuities are included in the price ($75 per person).
On Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, for $10 per person (drinks are additional), 24 to 30 guests attend a chef’s galley dinner held each evening in a dedicated dining room with a demo kitchen. The chef explains the preparation of each course before it is served and the themed menus vary nightly.
On all Carnival ships, for $75 per person, on a number of evenings during each cruise, 12 to 14 guests tour the galley and enjoy a champagne reception and seven-course gourmet dinner with wines complementing the dishes.
To ensure a seat at the table, find out whether reservations need to be made in advance, or if and when they can be made onboard. Not all lines offer them, some lines have them only on certain ships, and some are limited to one seating per cruise. Ask about the price and what it includes.
Check your calendar and seaboard itinerary to allow sufficient time for the meal, which can take up to four hours depending on the number of courses served.
“Cruise ships are about entertainment — and food is definitely entertaining,” says Forrest. “Getting a seat at a chef’s table at sea is like getting a backstage VIP pass at a concert.”