By David Yeskel
In a never-ending battle for culinary supremacy on the high seas, Seabourn Cruises fired a shot across the bow of the competition in the luxury sector by partnering with Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller in 2015. The goal – to add the chef’s prized dishes to menus aboard the line’s fleet of intimate ships – was ambitious, bold and potentially transformational for the line. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the logistical hurdles of re-creating those dishes faithfully at sea, the collaboration was a brilliant success that elevated Seabourn’s already-gourmet menus to an even higher level, while simultaneously resonating with the line’s sophisticated guests.
Long a critical focus of the cruise experience, onboard cuisine has improved immensely over the years, typically keeping pace with food trends in land-based restaurants and resorts. But as mass-market and premium operators continually ratchet up the quality and breadth of their culinary programs, companies in cruising’s luxury niche are forced to stay far enough ahead of the competition to satisfy an increasingly demanding clientele whose educated palates often dictate their travel choices.
That rationale was surely one of the factors driving Seabourn Cruises’ decision to feature Keller’s French and American cuisine in a seagoing environment where a reservation for a table doesn’t take months to secure, as it does at the chef’s famed The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. The preparation of the chef’s dishes aboard the line’s ships isn’t taken lightly, as their ingredients are sourced solely from Keller’s prized purveyors, and recipes are faithfully and meticulously executed by onboard chefs under critical oversight by shoreside management.
After firsthand experience on a recent “Norway and Northern Isles” sailing on Seabourn Quest, I can attest that Seabourn’s cuisine, further enhanced by Keller’s dishes, is a delicious study in perfection. As the only American-born chef to be awarded three Michelin stars on multiple occasions, Keller has a cult-like following among the nation’s upscale foodies, who gleefully carve a few notches in their culinary gun belt after dining in any of his critically-acclaimed, land-based eateries, which include The French Laundry, Per Se, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon. In order to gauge the actual demand for a table, I visited the reservations site for The French Laundry several times recently, and could not find an available table for two – up to three months out. Those lucky enough to secure a reservation at that shoreside eatery must also pay a minimum of $325 per person, in advance, to cover the prix fixe experience. And that’s without wine.
Two weeks before boarding Seabourn Quest, I was easily able to secure an online, advance reservation at The Grill by Thomas Keller, the chef’s signature restaurant, which is found aboard all five of the fleet’s ships. Guests are guaranteed at least one dinner experience there every 7 days of their cruise, but I was able to easily book a 2nd reservation at the venue once aboard. The Grill’s menu pays homage to the classic American restaurants of the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on updated versions of iconic dishes like Caesar salad, Dungeness crab cakes, Lobster Thermidor and ice cream sundaes, all accompanied by classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Pisco Sour.
And while the experience in The Grill is refined and intimate, equally satisfying Chef Keller-designed dishes are offered in Seabourn’s other dining venues almost nightly, ensuring that guests don’t miss out on other high-value culinary targets. During my 15-day sailing, I enjoyed four, 4-course, family-style Thomas Keller dinners in the casual Colonnade, which all featured an innovative composed salad, a main (clam bake, BBQ ribs, ribeye steak, and the highlight: fried chicken), a cheese course and dessert, all perfectly prepared and served with a choice of complimentary wines. These casual Colonnade dinners resemble those offered in Keller’s informal Ad Hoc eatery in Yountville, CA.
Meanwhile, roughly every other night, menus in The Restaurant – the ship’s most elegant dining option – typically feature a French-inspired, Thomas Keller starter, main course and a dessert, in addition to the already-sumptuous full menu of tempting delights.
And for those (like me) who still can’t get enough of the celebrity chef’s dishes, the quick, casual lunch menu at The Patio’s al fresco, poolside cafe offers two more items expressly designed for Seabourn: the Yountwurst dog and the Napa Burger, featuring 5-year-aged Cheddar and a house-baked potato bun. Both are out of the ordinary, delicious and best washed down with a selection of classic lagers or gluten-free beer.
Thus, with all of the aforementioned options, my initial FOMO (fear of missing out) on getting my fill of chef Keller’s cuisine aboard Seabourn Quest was thankfully allayed. But the focus I put on Keller’s food shouldn’t minimize the quality and breadth of the other cuisine offered aboard Seabourn’s ships, which is complex, creative, delicious, and makes up the majority of the dishes served aboard. Exquisite preparation, top-shelf ingredients and intricate presentation define the menus, with gourmet items like foie gras, caviar and lobster making frequent appearances – or available anytime, on-demand. Even the relatively-new Earth & Ocean dinners at The Patio, featuring complex world-cuisine served in a casual, poolside environment, are very impressive in their scope and creativity.
Then there’s room service, which is also elevated to a gourmet level on Seabourn. One evening, after a long day ashore, I ordered in from that night’s menu in The Restaurant. To my delight, the meal was delivered course by course on fresh linens in my suite, further cementing the luxurious image of Seabourn’s level of pampering.
There is no additional charge for any culinary item aboard Seabourn’s ships, and premium spirits and wines are also included in the cruise fare. Gratuities are neither required nor expected, and the warm, efficient and friendly service delivered aboard the line’s ships is testament to how well Seabourn management treats its crew, and thus, ultimately, its guests.