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The Crystal Method

Andrew Maclear reports on what makes Crystal Cruises’ approach to onboard cuisine truly special

One would imagine the picture was taken from a helicopter. How else could a camera look into St Mark’s Square from 200ft above the Grand Canal?

The solution is to be on Deck 12 of Crystal Serenity as she slips through the centre of this emblematic Italian city. Canals, squares, bridges and gondoliers appear and disappear as the pilot guides the ship at minimum speed through the main artery of Venice and out into the Adriatic.

The younger sister of Crystal Symphony is departing Venice on a June evening for the commencement of her 12-day Black Sea Voyager excursion. Her route will take her into the Aegean, stopping at the Greek islands of Katakolon and Mykonos, through the Bosporus strait, visiting the Black Sea ports of Yalta, Odessa, Sevastopol and terminating at Istanbul.

The Greek Islands and the vibrant Turkish capital provide softer bookends for the hard but handsome Ukraine cities.

Serenity underwent a comprehensive $25million refit in 2011, where the vessel was stripped and refurbished from bow to stern. This undertaking was achieved in a startling 14 days by 400 technicians working around the clock. No land-based hotel would contemplate such an operation; they would close floor-by-floor, year-by-year.

My Deck 11 penthouse is, more or less, a small studio apartment. The bedroom and living areas are spacious and efficiently combined, neither one encroaching on the other. A small entrance alcove combines a desk, dressing area and walk-in wardrobe.

The bathroom combines a full Jacuzzi bath and large, luxurious walk-in shower, excellent lighting, abundant towels, robes and Aveda cosmetics. The bed is far too large for one person but hugely comfortable for two. There is even a ‘pillow menu,’ something I have not encountered before.

A good size veranda is a feature of all penthouses and it was warm enough to sail through most nights with the door open. Room lighting has been entirely overhauled, with bedside controls providing four positions from ‘high’ to ‘relax,’ dropping in subtle increments until the room is an oasis of soft light.

An electronic pad at the door signals if you require privacy or if the room should be made up – no cardboard signs hung on doorknobs. Discreet and attentive staff are there when you need them and not when you don’t. Your butler visits each afternoon with canapés and will organise a drink from your fridge, to save you doing it.

This ambience travels out into the public areas. All corridors and stairways have been re-carpeted, relit and artworks replaced. Bars and shops likewise have been reformed. The ship is perpetually polished, buffed, scrubbed and staffed by an unfailingly courteous crew.

Culinary standards are exemplary and the choice diverse. All wines and spirits are complimentary throughout the ship – unless you summon the sommelier for a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 (among many fine and rare wines in the Serenity cellar). And, if you cannot drag yourself away from the comfort of your stateroom at all, there is 24-hour room service.

For all these efforts, Crystal has been receiving glowing accolades for more than a decade, none of which place the company anywhere below a five-star product, while some speak of six. Conde Nast Traveler describes Crystal as having the best ships in the world and Crystal themselves use the words ‘six-star’ wherever possible, albeit discreetly.

As with all high-end cruise lines, dining and catering are awarded scrupulous attention. The ship has six dining areas, the Crystal Dining Room, set on Deck 5, being the grand centerpiece. Tastes, the Trident Grill and Bar and The Lido, inside/outside breakfast and dining venues, are situated on Deck 12. These are augmented by two speciality restaurants, Prego, an 80-seat Italian restaurant, and The Silk Road, a floating outpost of Nobu Matsuhisa’s burgeoning Sushi empire. The latter establishments are abutted on Deck 7.

Executive chef Werner Brenner has an eye on all of these venues, although Nobu is an autonomous entity under the direction of Chef Hiroshi Nakaguchi. “Otherwise,” Brenner explains, “Nobu would not have done it.”

On an average evening, the Crystal Room will seat 800 in two sittings – no small undertaking. Yet Chef Brenner seems impervious to pressure and moves methodically about his galley, his brigade of chefs, sous chefs, kitchen runners and floor staff flowing about him.

He periodically materialises on different decks to check that all is in order at other dining locations. Add to this the responsibility for hiring and firing staff, plus ordering for all the galleys as the ship rotates through its annual cycle and you have a cocktail for exhaustion.

“Yes, it’s good to go home,” Brenner says, “Where someone else is in charge!” The daily production of thousands of meals is alleviated when he is asked to cook to order by a client. Ultimately, all chefs want and need to be in front of a stove.

Two decks above The Crystal galley, at Prego, executive chef Alfred Napotnik hustles around in a much smaller galley, very much in front of a stove, creating hands-on Italian cooking – plump raviolis, rich risottos, first class steaks and rarefied pastas.

Napotnik, surrounded by his small kitchen crew, goes through a skillet a minute, casually tossing them aside as each dish is executed (a kitchen porter’s nightmare). A few yards away at the adjoining galley, Hiroshi Nakaguchi, cool, calm and focused, is solemnly producing Japanese haut cuisine for the Silk Road.

Incoming and departing waiters move with syncopated precision around wok-wielding Japanese chefs and Napotnik’s flying skillets. New spatial skills have to be quickly learned and implemented to negotiate these kitchens with a camera.

An oft-forgotten fact is cruise line chefs – indeed, all staff – usually work a four or six-month tour of duty, often without a single day off (a morning or afternoon here or there can be taken to alleviate burnout). Days are long and circumstances can be difficult.

Air conditioning can and does collapse, galleys are crowded, standards are demanding and rough seas can render even a heavily stabilised ship a challenging environment in which to work.

It is true Crystal Cruises' chefs take two months’ vacation for every tour of duty, yet no land-side chef would contemplate such a punishing schedule. Equally, no one complains about this regime, perhaps because it is so well orchestrated and the company makes a huge commitment to staff/employer relations.

All dining areas tend to be hit hard and early as the passenger demographic seems to be around 70 per cent American on this voyage (and advance reservations for Prego and Silk Road are essential).

This presents a logistical difficulty for the open-seating plan adopted by the line in January 2011 (although canny cruisers retreat to their rooms when things are tight and order room service, thus giving the kitchen another type of headache).

Bruno Marques, the Maitre D’ of speciality restaurants, would not wish, or be able, to undertake this mind-numbing juggle without computer assistance.

All three senior chefs followed the formal and arduous route to their current positions, undertaking long internships and gaining broad experience in hotel and cruise catering. Chef Brenner has been with the line 11 years while Chef Nakaguchi came to the ship from Nobu’s New York restaurant.

Prego head chef Napotnik had all but turned his back on shipboard life when, in 2007, Crystal Senior VP Toni Neumeister suggested he “go to Venice and take a look at Serenity.” Napotnik did – and has been on board ever since. “You have a diversity of produce, destinations, ideas and opportunities here that you’re never going to find on shore,” he tells me. “It’s seductive.”

The images of the food made aboard Serenity tell the story better than any words. If you can get in – first come, first seated – a soothing respite from the busier dining rooms is found at The Silk Road, where live presentation of sushi is solemnly undertaken at the bar by four chefs and sake is close to hand.

In the evening, the less formal environment of Tastes also provides simpler things in a quieter setting. Breakfast and lunch buffets are startling in the variety of choice.

Serenity has a globally presented wine cellar and something for everyone’s budget. If you leave the confines of the ship’s bodega, and budget is not a consideration, then think about the aforementioned Mouton Rothschild, the 1998 Petrus, or the cult vintage, Screaming Eagle.

The Promenade Deck provides an opportunity to circumnavigate Serenity and contemplate the ship and the experience. By now, we are heading back to Istanbul, through a thunderstorm, for a one-night layover and the close of the voyage.

Deck staff are hurrying to clear the breakfast service from Deck 12 whilst lighting is crackling overhead. Fat raindrops become dark, silent stains on the teak decks as the ship ploughs on – unhindered and unhurried by the storm. I stay out on deck despite the weather. After 11 days on board, these decks and all between them is beginning to feel like home.

For some, it IS home. So perhaps the last words on this should go to Mrs Lee Wachstetter, known as Mama Lee to the crew, captain and her friends on board. Lee celebrated her 103rd cruise aboard Crystal whilst on this voyage, the distinction being they have all been joined together.

Mama Lee is a full-time resident and dancing is her passion – one reason she is on a Crystal ship since they are one of the few companies who maintain their Dance Ambassadors programme (unpaid but highly qualified dance hosts for those travelling solo or with non-dancing companions).

Lee was married for 50 years to a non-dancing husband but they cruised extensively. “Don’t you quit cruising,” her husband had instructed her before he died. Mama Lee took this instruction seriously and has spent the past 15 years cruising and dancing.

Yet she leads a simple, quiet life aboard, stays in close touch with her family in Florida, does needlepoint in her room but is on the dance floor each evening at 6pm sharp. If asked where she lives, she will simple tell you: “Aboard Crystal Serenity.”

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