An EPIC Undertaking
If it’s true that a rising tide lifts all boats, then in today’s cruise industry, the opposite is happening: the tide is rising because of the boats.
Propelled by a recent launch of superships from the major brands—think floating Las Vegas-style resorts—customers are choosing cruising as a vacation option in record numbers.
But along with the high tide of success come high F&B expectations from culinary-savvy passengers. Disappoint them, and they’ll likely sail with the competition next time.
Taking chances to impress the guest was a major motivator at Norwegian Cruise Line prior to launching its largest vessel to date, Epic, last June. The ship has more than 20 F&B outlets, holds around 4,100 passengers, and has approximately 1,700 crew members, including 460 in the kitchen and 400 front-of-the-house staff.
“We could not have any hiccups, and it had to be a winning start,” says Eric Cousin, NCL’s corporate executive chef, development. “We used all the best cooks, sous chefs, bakers, waitstaff, and maître d’s from all the ships in our fleet, and I think it was the smoothest opening we’ve ever had.”
Another reason Epic made a splash with guests is the diversity and quality of its food. Leading the way is Moderno Churrascaria, the first Brazilian steakhouse ever on a cruise ship. There is also the Noodle Bar, the first Asian outlet of its kind in the industry (see sidebar) and the Manhattan Room, modeled after New York supper clubs of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“We had to do extensive research to ensure that we hit new concepts like Moderno out of the ballpark in order to meet guest expectations,” says Wesley Cort, director of restaurant and beverage development operations at NCL.
While it’s important to surround the customer with innovative themes and dazzling décor, those at NCL say memorable food is the anchor that holds all the other F&B details in place. Without exceptional recipes, ingredients, and execution, dining can become a show without substance.
Using that principle to guide them, the culinary team at NCL spent nearly two years on recipe development, ingredient sourcing, cost control, accurate inventory estimations, and staff training leading up to Epic's maiden voyage.
Here, they detail the menu planning that went into the 592-seat Moderno Churrascaria and the obstacles they overcame to make it as authentic as possible.
PASADORES AT SEA
If taking chances is the key to keeping fussy passengers excited about the onboard F&B, then perhaps no bigger risk could be taken than trying to replicate a churrascaria—a Brazilian steakhouse featuring large skewers of meat sliced tableside by servers called pasadores. It hadn’t been tried on a cruise ship before Epic because the traditional Brazilian method of cooking meat over charcoal couldn’t be duplicated.
“Open flames on a ship are forbidden, so we had to source custom electric grills,” says Karl Muhlberger, NCL’s VP of F&B operations. Those grills were created specifi cally for Epic by a company called Elangrill and have been modified to burn at a higher temperature than a standard grill, with built-in racks to hold skewers of meat over the heat.
While the aesthetics of an electric grill might not reflect the sights and smells of a shoreside churrascaria, without them, it would be impossible to offer this concept on a cruise ship. The grills allowed Muhlberger and his team to focus on creating an authentic churrascaria menu without logistics limiting its execution.
About 18 months before Epic's launch, they started dining at Brazilian steakhouses in Chicago, New York, and Miami and comparing those experiences to what they already knew about South American churrascarias, compiling a list of must-have items for the Moderno menu.
View menus from Epic's outlets:
“The most important things with a churrascaria are to get the meat right, the flavors correct, and to make sure that we have the correct side dishes,” says Jason Drysdale, NCL’s corporate executive chef, operations. “We spent a few weeks with chefs from Brazil to learn the exact method for marinating the meat.”
Eventually, NCL decided on 10 core items for Moderno, using churrascaria-specific cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and chicken. These include standards like picanha (skewered garlic-marinated top sirloin) and frango (“chicken” in Portuguese), served two ways: skewered chicken legs marinated in lime juice, sea salt, and garlic, or skewered chicken breast wrapped in hardwood-smoked pepper bacon.
With their wish list mapped out, NCL’s culinary team worked with a meat supplier in Chicago, experimenting with multiple samples until they found the cuts they wanted. That supplier was then contracted to mass produce the exact size, quality, and volume specifi- cations needed for the Moderno menu. For example, Epic only uses Gold Angus Beef, so there had to be enough available to regularly replenish inventory.
Cousin says the initial loading of meat aboard Epic filled nine 40-foot containers. Since then, inventory is kept to par once a week with deliveries from Chicago to Miami when Epic is docked between trips.
PÃO DE QUEIJO CONUNDRUM
Beyond the main courses, another important task was recreating a traditional churrascaria salad bar. At Moderno, 65 items are offered, including cured meats, vegetables, prepared salads, ceviche, and artisan cheeses.
Authentic side dishes were added as well, with classics like buttered rice, savory black beans, garlic mashed potatoes, and fried bananas. But one item presented a formidable sourcing challenge: pão de queijo, which is fresh-baked Brazilian cheese bread.
“They use a Brazilian cheese which is almost impossible to get in the United States, and they don’t use regular flour. They use cassava flour or tapioca flour, which is not really common here in the States or in Europe to make bread,” says Eric Bilodeau, NCL’s corporate pastry chef.
Bilodeau was able to source enough cassava and tapioca flour to meet the production requirements aboard Epic, but the cheese, known as Minas in Brazil, could not be sourced in volume quantities.
To substitute, Bilodeau first experimented with a mixture of 40 percent Parmesan and 60 percent Cheddar before deciding on a Mexican cheese called Cotija Anejo, which is similar to feta or Parmesan and can be purchased consistently in the quantities needed at Moderno.
“I had a Brazilian friend of mine try it without telling him exactly what I did in the recipe,” says Bilodeau. “We came up with something very close to the original without having to use the Brazilian cheese.”
Another authenticity concern prior to opening Moderno was the issue of pasadores walking around the dining room with large knives on a moving ship. NCL experimented with having the meat pre-sliced so the pasadore could slide it off the skewer with a large fork, but “that would defeat the purpose of trying to be authentic,” says Cousin.
“The original idea is to have the pasadore cutting the meat in front of you,” he says. Once the team started practicing with the knives, they discovered there wasn’t enough movement to cause a problem.
While the pasadores kept their knives for the entrées, changes were made to the end of the meal. Originally, a tray of sample desserts was brought to each table by a pasadore, but, according to Muhlberger, “it looked a bit cheesy and wasn’t very nicely done, so we just put the list of desserts on the menu, and the guests pick what they want.” The most popular dessert at Moderno is Brazilian papaya cream with cassis, created by Bilodeau.
Further menu tweaking included adding a skirt steak, based on repeated customer requests, bringing the total number of meat choices to 11. So far, Moderno’s most popular main courses are filet mignon, garlic beef, and picanha.
Moderno is in the “Specialty Dining” category aboard Epic, meaning the guest pays $20 to eat there, and alcohol is extra. Cousin says that hasn’t been a barrier to success, and Moderno “was a hit from the first night it opened. Passengers couldn’t believe we had such a concept on a cruise ship.”
Prior to the launch last June, the culinary team at NCL spent approximately four weeks training its kitchen staff to execute the menus aboard Epic, including Moderno.
NCL also hired experienced Brazilian pasadores to work the front of the house, which Drysdale says was crucial to the successful opening of an untried, unproven cruise ship concept.
Perhaps the surest sign of Moderno’s success is that NCL is no longer the only cruise company offering a churrascaria onboard. But those at NCL say the real satisfaction comes from positive customer feedback, which often translates into repeat cruisers.
“We’re very proud of what we did,” says Cousin. “People are stopping us and saying, ‘We love your food, Chef!’ That’s the best present we can get. So no matter how hard the planning was or the nights we didn’t sleep because we couldn’t find the right combination of ingredients for the menu, it’s all paid off 10,000 times.”Michael Costa brings culinary school education, a background in hotel foodservice, and years of professional journalism experience to his position as Industry Relations Editor for HOTEL F&B.
When it comes to F&B, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic is famous for two firsts—it boasts the first Brazilian steakhouse at sea and also the first authentic noodle bar in the cruise industry.
“I was lucky enough to work in Asia for eight years, including Hong Kong, which gives me a lot of insight to what real Hong Kong noodles are all about,” says Jason Drysdale, NCL’s corporate executive chef, operations.What defines "real" Hong Kong noodles, according to Drysdale, is lightning-fast service, an à la carte checklist for a menu, low prices, and truly authentic ingredients. However, because many of Epic's passengers are North American, NCL had to exclude certain Asian staples that might seem unfamiliar to the guest.
"We cannot have duck eggs for example, so we use chicken eggs in the dishes," says Karl Muhlberger, NCL’s VP of F&B operations. “We had to put a boundary up with some proteins to make it recognizable to our guests. It’s important that they read the menu and say, ‘Yes, I understand this dish.’”
Aside from those modifications, the rest of the menu offers well-known choices such as dim sum, noodles from the wok or in broth, fried rice, and desserts, including green tea cake, created by NCL’s Executive Pastry Chef Eric Bilodeau. Each item is priced between $2.50 and $5.50, with no additional cover charge applied. The best sellers on the menu are fried pot stickers ($3.50) and Peking-style shrimp and chicken with lo mein noodles ($5).
To cook the noodles authentically, Drysdale helped design a custom noodle steamer based on his experience in Asia, with one in the outlet’s bustling open kitchen and another in reserve as a backup for when the 15-seat space is packed. Much of Noodle Bar’s business is done via carry-out, with approximately 400 items sold on a busy day.
Overall, passengers have embraced the concept—it ranks among the most popular outlets on a ship that has more than 20 F&B options. Location is also a factor in its success, being just outside the entrance to Epic's casino, which guarantees steady foot traffic all day.
“Everywhere you go in Asia, if you want something fast and tasty, you go to a noodle bar,” says Eric Cousin, NCL’s corporate executive chef, development. “With ours at the front of the casino, we thought that would be the best part of the ship to really show off something new to the guest.” —MC