Australian celebrity chefs Curtis Stone, Mark Best and Luke Mangan join the cruise ship circuit

Sea fare: Curtis Stone at his restaurant Share aboard the Ruby Princess.
Sea fare: Curtis Stone at his restaurant Share aboard the Ruby Princess. 

It really was only a matter of time before the celebrity chef made the move to the world's oceans, given that you can't turn the television on or stuff a mushroom without bumping into one of them on land.

The jury's out as to who was the first named chef to cruise the ocean blue – the good money's on either Gary Rhodes or Michel Roux – but one of the latest is Australian Mark Best, he of the much acclaimed and sadly defunct Sydney restaurant Marque.

Best has signed on to run Bistro by Mark Best on the Genting Dream, a new luxury ship designed specifically for the Asian cruise market by the Malaysian Genting Group and which launched in October last year.

Curtis Stone wants guests at Share to be served food he would be thrilled to eat himself.
Curtis Stone wants guests at Share to be served food he would be thrilled to eat himself. 

Currently operating out of Hong Kong, it will change home ports to Singapore on December 3 with itineraries covering Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

In doing so Best joins a list that includes the likes of Jamie Oliver (Royal Caribbean International), Marco Pierre White (P&O Cruises), French Laundry's Thomas Keller (Seabourn Cruise Line), Guy Fieri (Carnival Cruise Line) and Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa (Crystal Cruises) as well as fellow Australians Luke Mangan (P&O Cruises) and Curtis Stone (Princess Cruises).

It was Mangan who led the way in Australia when he was approached by P&O. Sitting in his Mojo restaurant and HQ in Sydney's Dank Street, Mangan recalls his first reaction: "It wasn't really what I wanted to do … cruise ships? But a week later they tried again and asked me what it would take for me to come on board, literally."

Bistro by Mark Best on the Genting Dream.
Bistro by Mark Best on the Genting Dream. 

Mangan trotted out a list that included "our own separate kitchen, our own separate team and our own separate ordering of products, just like any restaurant that we have on land. And they agreed; agreed to everything. And I thought 's---'."

The first Salt Grill opened on P&O's Pacific Jewel in 2009 and, thanks to passenger demand, they opened two more within 12 months. Mangan now has outlets on five P&O ships.

"Celebrity chefs," says P&O Cruises president Sture Myrmell, "can be described as the rock stars of the modern age. They have helped to democratise food and wine and cultivate new trends and as reality media increases, so does our love for famous faces.

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"On cruise ships, restaurants headlined by celebrity chefs have often been considered premium dining options and can bring a touch of glamour for a meal to celebrate a special occasion or milestone."

They also provide that glimpse of glamour in high-end surroundings for a rock-bottom price. A three-course dinner at Salt afloat will set you back $49 (lunch is $39). A seven-course Chef's Table degustation dinner on the P&O Pacific Explorer, with matching wines, costs $99. As Mangan says: "People who can't afford to go to Glass or one of our restaurants overseas can afford to go to it on a ship. It's great value for money."

On the Genting Dream, an entry-level three-course Mark Best meal – and remember, this is the guy who garnered three hats in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide – costs $HK128. That's about $20.

Vanilla ice-cream, berries and meringue at Bistro by Mark Best.
Vanilla ice-cream, berries and meringue at Bistro by Mark Best. Photo: Andrea Di Lorenzo

Best says: "That's not much at all but of course it is a supplement [to the cruise price], and nearly all cruise lines work on a supplementary basis.

"Basically in cruising every dollar you can get above the ticket price is a win. How likely you are to pay extra depends on where you are and what level you are on the ship. As you'd expect, the people that pay the most are more likely to spend extra on board and the people who pay the economy all-inclusive tickets are, well, you don't want to stand between them and the buffet, I can tell you."

On Princess Cruises' ship the Emerald Princess, $39 will get you a special selection of up to five dishes at Share, Australian chef Curtis Stone's only eatery outside the United States. As someone (me) wrote at the time of the restaurant's launch: "This is the bargain of the century."

Luke Mangan has opened five Salt Grill restaurants on P&O ships.
Luke Mangan has opened five Salt Grill restaurants on P&O ships. Photo: Supplied

But, given the nomadic nature of cruising, just how involved are the chefs in their ocean-going "offspring" and how do they make sure that standards are maintained?

"All the recipes are mine, although it's also had to be a tailored response for the clientele," Best says. "It's been a steep learning curve and I could no longer rely on sheer gut instinct. I've had to craft my decisions to suit people who have had no experience of me before so that's been incredibly interesting."

Best spent seven weeks on the ship organising the design and rollout of Bistro – like Mangan, he insisted on having his own team and kitchen and Australian suppliers for things like Murray cod and Bateman's Bay oysters – and will be tweaking his menu again in advance of its arrival in Singapore. It is, he says, part of his plan to go back on board regularly to keep an eye on things and "keep up standards".

Luke Mangan says branching out into cruising has opened up a whole new audience.
Luke Mangan says branching out into cruising has opened up a whole new audience. Photo: Supplied

Mangan believes that maintaining those standards is easy – "in some ways easier than having restaurants in Tokyo or Singapore".

"We use a lot of the suppliers that we use in our restaurants on land; meat, seafood, things like that. And then in every port … fresh produce. It's incredible," he says.

"And then, chef-wise, we have our own teams in our Salt Grills and they don't move to any other part of the ship. And each head chef from Salt Grill comes to work at Glass or goes to Singapore and works there for the experience.

"Then there's myself. I'm travelling quite a bit on cruise ships but we also have one chef who's been with us for 10 years and who visits every ship every month. He flies out, goes to check on things, works with the team, sees what we might need to change. To me, it's no different from a restaurant on land."

Curtis Stone, now based in Los Angeles, says he had a "very specific vision of how I wanted Share to look, feel and, most importantly, taste".

There are now three Share restaurants (on the Emerald, Sun and Ruby Princess ships) and the menu was developed by Stone himself in his LA test kitchen: "The Princess team came here, I worked with the chefs at sea. It's important to ensure that everyone understands my fresh approach to food. Sun Princess' menu alone took us about two months to finalise."

Like Mangan, when Stone himself can't get on board, he has a corporate chef who jumps from ship to ship to "ensure that the menus are coming to life just as we envisioned".

And, he adds: "I'll always make time to FaceTime the teams when I wrap up service at Maude or Gwen so I can keep up on how everything is going in the galley and to say 'Hi' to the team onboard.

"It's important to me that guests have the experience that I would want and food that I'd be thrilled to eat myself, at sea or anywhere else in the world."

While it's early days yet for Mark Best, Mangan says branching out into cruising has been one of the best things he's done because it has opened up a whole new audience: "You know, I sell more cookbooks on the ships than anywhere else. When I'm on board I'll do a cooking show and a book signing and I can sell 300 books just like that. It's incredible."

Stir-fried chilli crab

This crab dish on Curtis Stone's Sun Princess Share menu is among his most popular.

2 x 1kg live mud crabs

1 tbsp olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 long red chilli, finely chopped

1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated

⅓ cup shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

3 tbsp rice vinegar

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp Thai-style sweet chilli sauce

1 tbsp sugar

fresh coriander sprigs, for garnish

1. To kill crabs humanely, place them in freezer for 2 hours. Then bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. When crabs are no longer moving, plunge them into boiling water for 1 minute, or just until shells begin to turn red. Transfer crabs to a baking tray to cool.

2. Remove legs and claws from crabs. Using the back of a knife, lightly tap the body shell to crack it. Remove top shell from each crab body and clean insides with your fingers. Cut the main body of each crab into 4 pieces.

3. To cook crabs and serve, place a large wok over high heat. When hot, add oil to wok. Add shallots, garlic, chilli, and ginger and stir 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add crab pieces, including claws, and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add rice wine and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, or until wine is reduced by half.

4. In small bowl, stir vinegar, soy sauce, sweet chilli, and sugar and drizzle over crabs. Cook, tossing frequently, for 2 minutes, or until crab meat is cooked through.

5. Transfer crab pieces to serving platter and spoon sauce over. Garnish with coriander and serve.

Serves 4