The words, “cruise food” don’t impart the idea of a delicious meal prepared with care while on vacation. No, usually these words invoke the thought of a insipid buffet on a giant ship—and this is one reason chef John Suley, the director of culinary operations for Celebrity Cruises, is trying to change his customer’s perception. From January 29 to February 1, Suley is hosting a popup restaurant in The Kitchen NYC to showcase what, and how, he is bringing gourmet back to ocean. For $40, you can try his three-course lunch, or $75 gets you a three-course dinner (tickets here). I caught up with Suley to find out how one gets into cooking on a cruise ship, what he hopes to change, and why food on boats has such a bad rep.
How did you get into cruise cooking?
I was invited to be a guest chef on Celebrity Equinox, the second in Celebrity’s series of award-winning Solstice Class ships, and was fascinated by the fact that an operation so huge could also be driven by an unwavering commitment to creating the best food and beverage experience possible. The team onboard was energetic, engaged, excited, and genuinely passionate about what they did. These amazing individuals represent over 65 nationalities, each with their own outlook, experience, culinary influences, and culture.
What did you do before?
Earlier in my career, I worked all over the world with celebrity chefs in Michelin-starred restaurants, and found myself at a point where I too wanted to make an impact. When the opportunity to take a leadership role on Celebrity’s team came up, I knew that I could do just that. I could work, train, motivate, and inspire our crew onboard.
How does it work?
Operationally, our ships are similar to any large luxury hotel in the world. Each vessel has multiple food and beverage outlets, the only difference is that we are at sea. Celebrity puts the culinary experience at the top and wants to be recognized as the best operation on land or at sea.
What do people assume about cruise food that is and isn’t true?
People have no idea that our food is made from scratch. That’s right, we make all products onboard, bring whole primals of meat, which our butchers break down for the guest to consume. All bread, pastry, soups, stocks, and sauces are made on board. The ship’s food experiences are consistently very high quality. Our food surprises a lot of people.
Do you think the food on cruises is getting better?
Our food is outstanding. In terms of the perception that food on cruises needs to get better, Celebrity is working to change that belief. Last year, we not only became the first cruise line to cook dinner at the legendary James Beard House, we also created the first cruise-line, land-based, pop-up restaurant. We’re doing another one in Manhattan later this month.
What are you doing to bring gourmet food to the ship?
We seek to procure the best ingredients from our various ports from around the world and incorporate those offerings into our menus. We’re partnering with SPE/Rouge Tomate to create healthy experiences onboard. We want to be diverse in offering multiple dining options to our guests on board. We want, and will, continue to be forward thinkers, trendsetters in our field who take our cuisine around the world to major culinary events as guests or participants.
Are there obstacles you face when choosing a menu for a cruise?
Because our ships are so large, and our consumption is high, we have to make sure we can source enough product to sustain a seven to 14 day cruise. We do one large loading on the first day of the cruise, and we do top off with fresh loadings of produce in daily ports to ensure the best quality and freshest product for our guests. Our ships can be in the Caribbean, Asia, Australia, the Mediterranean and beyond, so logistically, we have to be precise and organized with deliveries to our ships.