Follow Me Foodie to Dining at Sea with Princess Cruises!
A behind the scenes look and taste of the kitchen & restaurants on the Sapphire Princess cruise ship.
Oh gosh Vancouver you are so beautiful! To look at the boat or to look at Vancouver? Both! It was the perfect day to set sail on Princess Cruise’s Sapphire Princess!
All aboard! I wish! Sorry, but I’m not Oprah or Ellen and I can’t say I’m sending everyone to eat on a cruise today, but here is my recap. I was invited for a media “Dayscape” aboard the cruise ship which was departing to Alaska from Vancouver, BC. It was a sneak peek of what goes on behind the scenes of a cruise ship kitchen. Of course this was followed by tastings of what they had to offer at 3 of their 17 dining options. It was an event filled day and I might not ever look at “cruise ship food” the same way again.
I’ve been on Royal Caribbean cruises and Carnival cruises, but never Princess. On the scale of cruise lines Princess is an upper-middle class brand so I expected things to be pretty nice which they were. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a cruise and they’re ideal for travellers who want to just relax without planning an itinerary.
When I think about cruises I immediately think of the food because I feel like eating is all I do when I’m on them. Sure there are lots of other activities to do, but I always find myself in one of their dining rooms. If you’re on a cruise ship you can guarantee you’ll never go hungry. The 24/7 soft serve ice cream machines or ice cream parlours (which the Sapphire Cruise has) is what gets me.
To be honest, I wouldn’t get too excited about cruise ship cuisine unless I was going on an upscale or luxury cruise ship. I don’t want to sound high maintenance at all (I like hole in the walls too), but the quality of food obviously gets better the higher up you go. In some cases the cruise ship menus will be catered towards the destination of that trip as well. For example a Caribbean cruise would feature Caribbean cuisine nights. They try and switch things up and give enough international options so you aren’t eating the same thing all the time.
So what’s not to get excited about? Well for me it’s the idea of having endless nights of “hotel banquet” food where everything is massed produced and pushed out to feed 3000 or more passengers. I think “feed the pigs!” “feed them anything!” “just get the food out!”, but it’s not the case. I had assumed that it was all GFS or Sysco products, but what I experienced on the Sapphire Princess Cruise was beyond that. So Follow Me Foodie to a better understanding of how the whole culinary operation works on the Princess Cruises – it’s a lot more work than I would have thought!
Dining at the International Café
We started with a welcome toast and canapés from the International Café at the Piazza. The Princess Executive Chef gave us a brief history about the ship and introduced us to the sommelier wine pairings and tastings available. I wasn’t aware that they had such wine focused options available on a cruise. It is not available on all cruise ships either. I didn’t get to see much of their selection, but they did have some good international wines and we tried a couple nice ones which you’ll see later on.
The canapes included house made pizzas at sea, paninis, croissant sandwiches, grilled Mediterranean vegetables, salads and various selections from their pizzeria and International Cafe. These were pretty standard offerings and what I would more or less expect on a cruise ship.
If I think about it some more – of course it’s a lot of work cooking on a cruise ship! You have to feed 3000 people a minimum of 3 meals a day (but more like 6 on a cruise ship) for say one week. You can’t stop to get more food and you have to supply 17 eating establishments on a ship like the Sapphire. That’s 3000 palates from various backgrounds and cultures with different tastes and you have to satisfy them at all times of the day. How?! How do they do it?!
A behind the scenes look of the kitchen on the Sapphire Princess…
And this is how! And I thought hotel kitchens were big! I’ve been in professional and industry kitchens, but never one like this. It put “large scale production” on a whole new level. It was huge. I got so lost and every area looked the same. I expected everything to be spic and span (especially since they expected company), but each station was organized and appeared very well kept. I took a big whiff of each room we entered and there was no smell that should not have been there – you can’t cover up a smell of a truly dirty kitchen. I have no idea what this looks like when things are in full swing, but with a 180 kitchen brigade (which beats the normal 120-130 staff most other cruise ships have for the size of the ship), it was promising that there was enough staff to keep everything tidy and in order.
We made our way into the bakery department which was the size of an average kitchen of a 50-100 seat restaurant. It was considered a big space, but in the context of a cruise ship kitchen it was a small fraction of the bigger picture.
Little did I know that the bread was also being baked in house. I expected the pastries to be, but even the bread for bread baskets and dinner rolls were being made by hand. The dough was a basic bread dough recipe and sprinkled with different ingredients including poppy seeds, sesame seeds, corn meal and cumin seeds.
If you know this blog, you know I always write about the complimentary bread baskets and butter at every restaurant I go to. It can tell me a lot about the restaurant and I appreciate when it’s being house made. I appreciated it here too. Not only that, but freshly baked bread is made three times a day on this cruise ship. Honestly I expected it to be frozen or made all in the morning and just reheated throughout the day, but it was none of the above. However when there is an exclusive bakery department and manpower you can deliver a higher standard.
It was interesting to learn that bread is also the hardest thing to make on a boat. With the movement of the boat and the moisture and temperature of the air it makes working with doughs and baking bread a challenge.
We were asked to braid the dough, sprinkle the toppings and score the dough. It was here I learned the significance of scoring. In France scoring would be the signature of the baker. This is how some people can tell where the bread came from and who made it. It also helps the dough rise and expand when baking, which was the only reason I knew of before. To properly score the bread you don’t poke at it with the tip of the knife, but you just slide the blade to slit the dough open on the top.
The pastry department was separate from the bread baking department to give you an idea of just how big this set up was. The pastry department was even bigger and it was here we helped make the signature “Love Boat” dessert.
It was funny having all the chefs watching us make the dessert. There was no “let me just do it”, but I could feel it.
The Princess Executive Chef was actually telling us how he used to be in the pastry department, but couldn’t stand the feeling of sugar settling on his teeth all day so he had to move to savouries. Working with pastries you always have to try the things you make (just like you would in any department), but the sugar would be overwhelming and by the end of the day he would want to take out all of his teeth and wash them. Being the dessert lover I am I can totally understand what he means though and I hate that sugary feeling on my teeth… it’s worth it, but I want to brush my teeth right after.
Besides the size of the kitchen I think I was most wow’d by this. If you ever wondered how they keep things consistent and remember where every garnish and ingredients goes on each plate, well stop wondering! Some of the walls were covered with photos of how things had to be plated and presented. There were diagrams for every single course. I’ve seen this at hotels before, but this was that X100. It was a large scale mosaic… or food wallpaper.
Dining at the Chef’s Table
After a behind the scenes kitchen tour we were taken to dine at the Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table is an additional feature offered on the cruise that guests are welcome to reserve for an additional fee.
Selection of hors d’oeuvres
Alaskan King Crab Margarita with Avocado and Mango
Beef Tenderloin Tartare with Traditional Condiments
Gruyere Cheese and White Truffle Mini Quiche
Roasted New Potatoes with Sour Cream and Caviar
Porcini Mushroom Risotto with Broiled Herb-Stuffed Halibut Chef’s Style
Lemon Sorbet with Mango Slaw
Trio of Beef, Veal and Pork Tenderloin on Medieval Spiked Flamblé Roaster Jus, Salsa Verde, Bearnaise Sauce and Cafe de Paris Butter. Charred Cherry Tomatoes, Today’s Market Vegetables and Creamy Mousseline Potatoes.
Baked Camembert with Pine Nuts, Port Wine Reduction and Walnut Bread
Soft-Centre Chocolate Fallen Cake with Whiskey Soaked Raisin-Chocolate Ice Cream
Coffee or Tea with Executive Chef Marco’s Homemade Amaretti and Biscotti
I tried a sample of their main course from the Chef’s Table menu. The beef was dry aged 28 days and the veal was melt in your mouth tender. The beef was from the US (local is hard to define on a cruise) and the meats are all grain fed (as I was told).
The Chef’s Table is a 9 course with a few wine pairings for $95/person. It sounds like a great value, but I haven’t tried the full experience. Personally I love Chef’s Tables even outside of cruise ships and the meats were actually very promising here. The table would be set up in a private section of the dining room and can seat up to 12 people. Even if you don’t come with a group of 12 I’m sure you’ll find 11 foodies in the 3000 people on the cruise.
Dining at Sabatini’s
Next we moved to Sabatini’s which is the Italian restaurant on the Sapphire Princess. It was here we had the sit down formal lunch. What? You thought the pizzas and Chef’s Table tasting was lunch? That was the “amuse bouche” 😉
I only sampled the offerings at Sabatini’s Restaurant which doesn’t really give me an idea of what they do. The Truffle Ravioli was nice, but the risotto I wasn’t keen on. This chocolate cream, brownie and ganache “Love Boat” was also really good (what we helped make in the kitchen) and it was served with vanilla chantilly. It would have been even better with ice cream which they actually do make in house as well. I possibly enjoyed the Soft-Centre Chocolate Fallen Cake served at the Chef’s Table even more, but when there is chocolate cake in any form it will make most people happy.
I almost guarantee you could request it and they would serve it to you with ice cream if you wanted. Actually you could probably request anything and they would try their best. Cruises are usually very accommodating and I remember the chefs would always bring me extra desserts at dinner because they knew I liked food (and dessert)… a lot.
Anyway this wasn’t really representable of what the restaurant does, but Sabatini’s is one of their speciality restaurants on the Sapphire Princess. Cover charge applies – to see the virtual tour see here.
The quality of the food on this cruise was generally quite standard, but still good. The options are endless and a lot of things were being made in house. It’s not really about each dish though and about the bigger picture and cruise ship dining experience. No matter how you look at it, all holiday cruises will always be making things in large quantities, so that is something that’s expected and understood. However the chefs run a tight ship (pun intended) and food is the priority after safety on this cruise ship. It’s not easy catering to 3000 people, and for what they do I was more than impressed with the operations.
The chefs also come from different backgrounds and countries so my favourite part is actually getting to talk to them and learning more about food in their countries. This wasn’t part of the “Dayscape” itinerary, but it’s something I like to do.