This year I experienced a kind of brand transliteration when I sailed on the Silver Spirit, one of the small, agile cruise ships of Monaco-based luxury cruise line Silversea (regularly named the best cruise line in the world).
When I slipped through the etched-glass doors of Le Champagne restaurant, the warm, mahogany-lined interior felt familiar, even though it was my first time on board. As I slid onto the banquette under a crisp-white-linened table, and felt the curve of the Riedel stemware and saw the gleam of gold-rimmed porcelain plates, it was apparent before I even saw a menu.
I was emotionally back in some of my favourite restaurants – the shuttered Lumière in Vancouver or Per Se in New York. Turns out the only Wine Restaurants by Relais & Châteaux at sea are on board Silversea’s ships, forming an interesting case study of what happens when one very terroir-based brand meets a brand that rules the water.
Making a big world small
Hospitality brands are often defined by borders, however invisible those borders might be. Airline brands, aside from ground-side lounges, don’t dabble much in bricks-and- mortar hospitality.
Hotel brands are terrestrial but they mostly strive to replicate consistent brand values around the globe. Restaurants, in this era of local eating, rely on a distinct sense of place to define their style and cuisine. Nimble brands like Virgin that industry-hop from retail to airlines to hotels are notable precisely for crossing those borders.
R&C includes 475 of the finest hotels and restaurants in 55 countries. All of the properties are independent, each of them defined by its unique local setting, character and hospitality.
Silversea, on the other hand, makes a big world seem small with ships so well appointed you barely feel the need to go ashore. So how have these brands fared since partnering at sea a decade ago?
Regional to the voyage route
In many aspects, it’s a lovely match. Several Culinary Arts Voyages featuring R&C Grand Chefs sail every year, providing cooking demos, market trips ashore, and food and wine pairing instruction for Silversea guests.
Global wine regions and cuisine are showcased in six-course R&C menus in the ship’s Le Champagne restaurants, of a quality and ambition that outrank any other cruise offering.
It’s very likely that devoted R&C followers who trace a route de bonheur through its establishments around the world are the very same affluent globetrotters who choose to sail with Silversea.
Yet the challenges are formidable: Local ingredients define the cuisine of Jonathan Cartwright, the Sheffield, UK-born chef at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, one of five chefs who sailed on a 12-day New World cuisine-themed World of Relais & Châteaux cruise from Nice, France to Southampton, England.
At his own restaurant Cartwright proudly sources New England cheeses and fresh-caught lobster, Maine shrimp and fish in season, adhering religiously to the East Coast rule: “Oysters from this coast are best when there is no ‘R’ in the month.”
At sea, he instead follows Silversea’s philosophy of world cuisine, embracing diverse ingredients and styles.
“We try to create menus that we believe are regional to the voyage route,” he says. “Produce is sourced as fresh and as close to major ports of call as possible. On certain ports of call specialty items are purchased so cuisine can be created regionally.”
He adds that Silversea’s impeccable standard of food storage, hygiene and equipment are key to achieving high culinary standards.
Any bottle anywhere in the world
If his home dining room is full, Cartwright might serve leisurely multi-course dinners to 120 guests a night. On the Silver Shadow there could be three times that many in total, dining at various restaurants in a narrow window of time every evening.
And because guests are on board longer – anything from a 10-day sailing to a 115-day world cruise – menus must constantly change to surprise and delight them.
“A land-based restaurant features a menu based on the seasons and might change its menus every three months. We turn around all the menu cycles on a daily basis,” says Rudy Scholdis, Silversea’s culinary director.
Scholdis scoffs at the old adage that a good claret has to sail around the world once to be a great wine. “To be perfectly honest, I do not really agree with this logic. Wines age differently at high altitude, but at sea as well.”
He says Silversea’s surprisingly deep and diverse wine list is carefully managed to avoid too much on-board exposure to the elements that could affect its flavour. Through a shore-side cellar and high-tech logistics, they can get any bottle anywhere in the world in a day.
“This quick delivery method prevents us from having a great bottle of Château Pétrus visit the entire globe before it finally gets to be enjoyed by one of our guests.”
But the biggest challenge is consistent bread and pastries, says the Belgian-born Scholdis, who describes a fresh, crisp baguette as “a sponge” after a few minutes of sailing in hot, humid Southeast Asia or the Amazon. And Cartwright brings up one more personal obstacle for R&C chefs going aboard: “In strong seas, to be in the galley and not feel seasick!”
Lifting both brands’ boats
Based on the Transumer’s R&C culinary experience on Silversea, the successful land-sea partnership is a rising tide that lifts both brands’ boats.
R&C’s Grand Chefs bring a local, familiar style of hospitality with deep roots in terroir to the mobility brand of Silversea, enhancing the cruise company’s commitment to providing authentic regional experiences – not just generic luxe – to its guests.
The additional X-factor, as Chef Cartwright points out, is the deliciously exclusive transumer experience that can make even ordinary airline food taste great at 30,000 feet with a bird’s-eye view of the Atlantic out your window.
“The ports of call, and regions of the world that they sail to, alongside the unique views into the horizon from each of the dining rooms, are what make [Silversea ships] an ideal venue.”