Running a restaurant is tough enough in a city like London or New York. Running multiple restaurants in multiple places is tougher still. But running multiple restaurants on board multiple vast cruise ships that are constantly on the move throughout the world is a truly unique undertaking.
This is the challenge facing Cornelius Gallagher – associate vice president of food and beverage operations for the Celebrity Cruises line – who’s responsible for creating and implementing menus, along with everything else that goes into running the fleet’s food and drink offerings, for each of the line’s 12 ships.
In November 2018, that number will grow to 13, when the groundbreaking Celebrity Edge launches. With a capacity of 2,900 passengers, Edge will have 29 eating and drinking venues, from martini bars and relaxed cafés to rooftop grills and immersive dining experiences. However you look at it, there’ll be a lot for passengers – not to mention Gallagher and his team – to get their heads and mouths around.
Luckily with more than two decades in top New York restaurants, followed by a stint as director of culinary operations for Celebrity Cruise’s sister line Royal Caribbean International, Gallagher knows a thing or two about handling pressure. We speak to the New York-born-and-raised chef about the challenges of creating and serving food on a cruise ship; taking influence from the places the ships visit; and why he tries to instil a bit of the Bronx in his chefs.
How much influence do you take from the places you visit?
A lot, because it's important to know what the locals eat wherever I go – we have to stay connected to what's happening on land. Although in my job I oversee restaurants, bars and culinary operations at the same time, I'm a chef by trade, so it's part-business, part-pleasure. Getting to experience a Michelin-starred place like Gymkhana on my short visit to London is enlightening; it's extraordinary.
Understanding what people in a given part of the world eat is important to us, and translating that into what we know our guests like is key. We're inspired by everywhere we go, and as a chef I'm inspired by high-quality ingredients – if I'm creating a dish it's an ingredients-based creative process.
Do you source locally when the ship's on the move?
We do when it makes sense. Especially when the ships go to places like the Nordics or the Mediterranean – there's nothing better than going to the markets in Barcelona or getting local sea bass from Greece, or tomatoes from Italy.
When the ships go to certain destinations – Santorini, for instance – guests get off the ship and experience local food and restaurants, and during that time our chefs source local ingredients so when the guests get back onboard we'll have some of those local ingredients for them to enjoy.
I spent about 20 years cooking in Manhattan and creating food onboard a ship is actually a luxury, to be quite honest. In Manhattan, for instance, you would order from suppliers you knew and the food would turn up on your doorstep, and you barely had time to inspect it and be really fastidious and detailed with the ingredients. But we're essentially a floating hotel with amazing food, so we're going to different parts of the world, visiting markets and inspecting ingredients, so we can give our guests a taste of the location.
How much time do you actually spend onboard ships?
It's tough to say – I travel roughly 10-15% of the time. This year, when we launch Celebrity Edge, I'm going to be onboard for over a month making sure everything's just right. We're launching Edge in November and I'm really excited about it.
Typically when I travel I will travel to a port where there are 3 or 4 ships due to come in over a short period of time, I get onboard, meet the team, speak with the guests, get a temperature check of how things are going onboard. I also get to travel for forming new partnerships and things like that. I recently visited a company we’ve partnered with called Skullmapping. They’re an artist collective out of Belgium, and they've collaborated with a company called TableMation Studios.
We have a concept on the fleet called Qsine and it features three-dimensional projection mapping technology. Guests enter the venue and each table has a 4K projector built into the ceiling above and you sit down and see an animated version of a miniature chef as it prepares your dish in front of you, and you're then served that dish. It's a four-course experience and it goes to show that people want quality but they don't want to take themselves too seriously, and we don't want to take ourselves too seriously either. I really think that’s where food's going.
People expect to be entertained onboard. How do you you approach that?
At their core, restaurants are about entertainment – the word comes from the French restaurer – to restore. Yes, people have to eat, but thanks to the internet and social media they're becoming more educated about food, and the expectation is for amazing but simplified food – not over garnished – and being entertained at the same time. How do we do that? Through being smart with our use of colour palettes, with lighting, and the way servers greet people.
In the last 10-15 years, think hospitality has moved away from being a very formal experience that a lot of people found intimidating. What we're instilling at Celebrity is that it's all about the guest. Amazing service and hospitality should truly be invisible – it should be about them, not the server.
What are you doing at Celebrity Cruises to reach a younger audience?
I think some companies chase their tails – they're worrying about trying to appeal to every different demographic. Food and beverage trends come and go, but what never goes out of style is application of solid fundamentals: hot food hot, cold food cold, proper seasoning. If that's at the core of what you do, and you worry about everything else afterwards, that appeals to someone who's very young or very old. That's our starting point. We keep our eye on what's going on no land but we're not really driven by it – we don't want to be chasing the next big thing all the time. We look inward for inspiration rather than looking at what other brands or restaurants or doing – we keep an eye on what's going on but we're very introspective in that regard.
What's are you particularly proud of with the launch of Edge?
I think when people board and cruise on Celebrity Edge they're going to experience something truly groundbreaking, but if I had to name one venue I'd say Eden. It's the one that, as a chef, I'm most excited about; it's a true integration and melding of entertainment, performance art and culinary art all at the same time. It's going to be something truly unique – guests will never have experienced anything like it before.
You're a New Yorker. Does any New York find its way onto the menus onboard?
I am. I've lived there almost all of my life, though I moved down to Miami five and a half years ago. If anything has made its way onto the menus it's the multi-ethnicity of New York – I'm from the Bronx and I worked for 20 years in Manhattan. I love the fact that everything is really powerful and flavour-first in New York – it's like food on steroids. I want to bring a bit of that way thinking to the chefs and front of house onboard.
For more information, go to celebritycruises.co.uk