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Why Viking Cruises may have the most ambitious culinary program at sea

Posted: Updated: Jun 18, 2018 3:45 AM
The Chef's Table restaurant is a staple of all of Viking Cruises' ocean ships. The Chef's Table restaurant is a staple of all of Viking Cruises' ocean ships.

MARSEILLE, France - When Viking Cruises' first ocean-going ship, Viking Star, debuted in 2015, it featured something unusual for a cruise vessel: A restaurant that changed its cuisine every few days.

Dubbed The Chef's Table, the eatery offered a rotation of four tasting menus that focused on everything from Italian to Caribbean dishes.

It was just the beginning of what may be the most ambitious undertaking in cruise ship cuisine ever. Viking has included a Chef's Table restaurant on each of the four additional ships it has debuted over the past three years, including the just-unveiled Viking Orion, and the line has been rapidly expanding the number of tasting menus that rotate in-and-out of the eateries.

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As of this week, Viking will be offering 13 different menus at its Chef's Table restaurants. The latest addition, a pan-Asian menu called Lotus, will debut Monday on Orion. It features culinary elements from India, Singapore, China, Thailand and Japan infused into a fixed array of five courses.

Lotus arrives on the heels of new tasting menus for The Chef's Table focused on the cuisines of Mexico, Los Angeles, Australia and Thailand that have debuted over the past year.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility and (allows for) creativity," the French-trained chef behind the menus, Viking executive director of culinary development Anthony Mauboussin, says of The Chef's Table format. "We are not just stuck to one concept."

Speaking with USA TODAY on board Orion, which was christened on Thursday, Mauboussin suggests The Chef's Table as initially unveiled was not one restaurant but four. Now it is the equivalent of 13 restaurants. And it'll continue to expand its offerings.

When The Chef's Table first debuted on Star in 2015, its menu changed every nine days. Now the rotation in the eatery is much more frequent. On shorter cruises, a new cuisine appears every two days. On longer sailings, the rotation is every three days.

As the options available at The Chef's Table have grown, Viking has been able to focus the rotation of menus at the eatery to match specific itineraries. When Orion heads to Asia later this year, for instance, The Chef's Table will present a rotation that is heavy on several Asian tasting menus now available including the new Lotus menu, the new Thai menu and a Chinese menu.

"We will keep developing menus according to itineraries," Mauboussin says. "The idea is that if we have a ship in Asia, we can feature Asian menus all the way through; if we have a ship in the Caribbean, we will be able to bring the Los Angeles menu, for instance, with the Mexican menu and ultimately a Caribbean menu."

The development of new menus for The Chef's Table also has been driven, in part, by a desire to offer a wide range of culinary diversity to passengers on the line's new super-lengthy, world-circling cruises. The first such voyage, lasting more than 100 days, began in late 2017. A second, even longer world voyage lasting 245 days - a record for a world cruise - is scheduled to depart in 2019.

In conjunction with the world cruises, Mauboussin also has begun bringing in guest chefs from specific destinations along the routes to do five-day "takeovers" of The Chef's Table restaurant. The guest chefs give culinary demonstrations in ship-board theaters in addition to creating a temporary menu for The Chef's Table.

Meanwhile, Mauboussin continues to tinker with other culinary offerings on Viking's ocean ships. He recently signed on a master sushi chef to elevate the sushi bars in the casual World Cafe eateries on the vessels. The sushi bars are a highlight of the eateries during dinnertime.

"We are pushing the sushi bar a step further," Mauboussin says. "I think it works well now, but we want to take it to the next level. We want people to say, "Oh, wow! That's better than what we have had in any sushi bar before."

Mauboussin also spearheaded the development of a second menu for Manfredi's, the iconic Italian restaurant found on all five Viking ships. The new menu features several of the most-popular dishes from the first Manfredi's menu including its signature Bistecca Fiorentina. But many of its offerings are new.

The Manfredi's restaurants on Viking ships are serving the new menu now through the end of the year. They'll switch back to the original menu in January. The two menus were rotated in-and-out monthly on Viking's first world cruise. A third Manfredi's menu is in the works to be added to the rotation for Viking's next world cruise.

Mauboussin also is tinkering with small culinary details on Viking ships, like the size of the buns atop the art-like gourmet burgers served at pool-side cafes. Eagle-eyed Viking regulars will notice the buns recently have gotten a tad smaller, even as the meat remains the same. Viking, notably, only uses Black Angus dry-aged beef for its pool-deck burgers - unique in the cruise world.

"Everyone was leaving the top (of the bun) on their plate because it was too big, (so) we reduced the size," Mauboussin says. "The (burger) is just scaled down, so it becomes a little bit more elegant."

Now no one is leaving the top of the buns, he says.

Such a focus on detail has long been a mantra at Viking, which also is known for a focus on continuous improvement.

"It comes from the top," Mauboussin says, noting Viking chairman and founder Torstein Hagen "is someone that works in details. There are a lot of meetings on things that probably no one would think of."

The idea, Mauboussin says, is that they're always asking how they can be better, whether it comes to cuisine or any other aspect of the cruise experience.

"It's good for us that we don't get stuck in one thing, that we keep moving," he says.

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