How P&O Cruises brings fine dining to the high seas

09 November 2023 by

What does it take to feed a ship-full of guests over two weeks, with consideration over menus, storage and offering a fine dining experience at sea?

One hundred thousand eggs across 14 days – 4,167 dozen eggs every week – are required on board P&O's flagship vessel Arvia, which sails the Mediterranean in the summer months and the Caribbean during the winter.

With 1,700 daily covers just for breakfast at the ship's two main restaurants, plus a buffet feeding another 3,000 guests and a number of speciality restaurants offering that first all-important meal of the day, it's perhaps unsurprising that so many eggs are needed to satisfy the British holidaymaker's desire for fried, poached or scrambled as part of their full English.

Considering the fact that the ship also has a pastry team serving 400 different desserts, such as a 6th Street peanut butter jelly tart and Green & Co's chocolate earth plate across a 14-day cruise (with 5.5 tonnes of ice-cream to accompany it), we're talking a lot of hard-working chickens.

And eggs are only a miniscule part of the 240 tonnes of produce loaded on-board the ship at Southampton, including 11,000 kilos of potatoes and 26,000 litres of milk. And let's not forget 1,500 kilos of bananas, which have their own dedicated storeroom in the depths of the ship so the ethylene gas doesn't ripen the rest of the kitchen's precious cargo.

Feeding the 5,200 guests and 1,800 crew on board the 184,700-tonne, 345 metre long and 42 metre wide vessel is clearly no mean feat and a responsibility that lays with Matt Howard, F&B manager on board Arvia. Howard looks after a 900-strong team that creates 35,000-40,000 meals a day for both guests and crew, spending two months on sister ship Iona and two months on Arvia, before having a two-month break at his home in the Caribbean.

"It's a unique life being at sea. No two days are ever the same and it's such a challenge, but when you get it right, it's a buzz," says the chef, who started his career at the Royal Household at Clarence House and has worked at the likes of the Savoy in London and the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds. "I had a girlfriend at the time who was a dancer on cruise ships and, more than 20 years later, here I am."

Howard has been F&B manager on 48 ships across three brands and has been with P&O for the past seven years, and has sailed on every ship in the seven-strong fleet. Arvia is the biggest and newest of the ships and was launched in December 2022 after being christened in the Caribbean with a custom-made 15-litre bottle of Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, overseen by the ship's ‘godmother', singer Nicole Scherzinger.

Rum has long been associated with the high seas, as has gin, which, back in the day, was given to sailors in the Navy as a required ration. On-board Arvia is a custom-made still in the Anderson's Bar, which distils gin on the Mediterranean cruises before being cleaned out for rum production when the ship repositions to the Caribbean. Guests can book onto spirit masterclasses to learn more or sit back and enjoy a cocktail before dinner.

Experiences like the gin and rum tasting and blending are among hundreds of activities on offer to guests, including an Altitude high-ropes experience and a Mission Control escape room. But it's the dining experience where P&O has been putting in much effort to attract food-loving cruise goers with a number of ‘speciality restaurants'. Arvia has seven speciality restaurants on board (see panel), one of which is the highly acclaimed Green & Co Feat. Mizuhana, which is exclusive to Arvia and offers guests a plant-led menu reflecting the latest trends in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian dining. Beautifully plated sushi is bought to the table, alongside vegan dishes such as kombucha-infused beetroot carved into a rose and served with a white peach gel, wasabi-pickled salsa, candied walnuts and beetroot coral.

Larger plates from the menu include dishes such as a miso-glazed celeriac fondant with horseradish rémoulade, celeriac purée, soused red onions, celeriac crisps, shaved black truffle and a ‘creamed' jus. Or a chakalaka Wellington made from spiced haricot and ‘mock lamb' wrapped in golden pastry, served with purple cabbage gel, roasted giant corn and a warm green bean salad.

"I'm immensely proud of the speciality restaurants on board Arvia, but Green & Co is a game changer," says Howard, who adds that Green & Co gets more repeat visits than the other speciality restaurants on board – about four visits per cruise. "It's a phenomenal concept, like works of art on the plate – you won't find anything like it at sea, and we have hardcore, salty seadog sailors up on the bridge that love Green & Co."

The Sixth Street Diner is a 1950s American diner concept and another Arvia exclusive, offering guests brunch, dinner and sweet treats accompanied with fun jukebox music and cocktails. While on the other end of the scale is the Epicurean fine dining restaurant with a menu of classic British ingredients with a modern twist, served with fine wines in an elegant dining room with stunning ocean vistas.

P&O's restaurant offering is endorsed by a number of familiar industry faces, including chef José Pizarro (see panel) and wine expert Olly Smith, two of the brand's ‘food heroes'. The pair have consulted on the Glass House restaurant concept with its tapas and wine pairings, such as grilled whole tiger prawns, mango, chilli and garlic salsa paired with a glass of Badassiere Picpoul de Pinet, Coteaux Du Languedoc, France.

"Olly's enthusiasm is infectious," says Howard. "He can turn the most hardened beer drinker onto Burgundy within 20 minutes and I've never met a chef more passionate about provenance of food and flavours than José."

A collaboration with Shivi Ramoutar is a celebration of Caribbean cuisine at the Beach House – think jerk chicken supreme with rice and peas, coleslaw and shallow-fried plantain – while Marco Pierre White also comes aboard to host cooking demos and question and answer sessions. White is a consultant on the menus for the ship's Celebration Night dinner, where guests dress up in their finest to enjoy a gourmet dining experience of some of his favourite dishes across a five-course menu, such as New England split lobster with a mornay sauce and Champagne sorbet.

"The moment Marco Pierre White steps on the gangway he has time for people until the moment he gets off," says Howard. The food heroes take time to engage with guests and pique their culinary interests, but also work closely with the chefs to ensure the dishes they put their name to are served to perfection.

"To get to work with Marco is an inspiration," he adds. "After all, he's the reason I put chefs' whites on in the first place."

Q&A with José Pizarro

What drew you to working with P&O?

P&O is a big, quality company, which was very important to me. But really, it was about the people who are going on P&O cruises and having a chance to expose them to Spanish food. People from every part of the UK take their holiday on a P&O cruise and my motto is to try and take Spanish food as far and wide as I can, so this gives me a chance to teach people about Spanish cuisine and ingredients. The guests might try my tapas at the Glass House on board and then, not just come and try my restaurants, but other Spanish restaurants more locally to them.

What does your role involve?

I've been working with P&O for around five years and I develop the menus for my restaurants on board and teach the crew how to prepare and serve my food. It's really important for me to spend time on board the ship with the crew who might not be used to Spanish flavours – a chef can cook anywhere, but they need to spend time understanding different cuisines and flavours and test various olive oils, for example. My role is really not to just do the menu and run – I like to go there and work with them. We're preparing to change the menu in the New Year so I'll go on board again, greet guests and use the time the best I can to receive feedback.

Where do you get your inspiration for the Glass House?

A lot of the dishes are my favourite tapas plates and the value for money is absolutely amazing. The restaurant on board has a casual approach – I wanted it to feel like you're in a bar in the Mediterranean. I love the tempura king prawns, which are spicy served with patatas bravas and aioli dip.

I want to offer classic dishes, but also things that people might be trying for the first time, so I work with the front of house so they can communicate my philosophy to guests around simplicity and amazing quality.

How closely do you work with Olly Smith? Tell us a little bit about that relationship?

Olly is my brother! I've been living in the UK for 25 years now and I've known him for 20 years, so we've worked together. We go a long way back, from working at Spanish food and drink festival Tapas Fantasticas and Saturday Kitchen. It's so easy to work together, I love wine and he loves Spanish food. And he's my friend, that's the most important thing.

From the Glass House menu

  • Spiced lamb skewers, bulgur wheat tabbouleh and sumac yogurt
  • Tempura king prawns, patatas bravas, aioli dip
  • Peppered cheese polenta chips, romesco dip
  • Curry-spiced seared scallops, mango salsa, onion pakora
  • Crisp pulled pork black pudding gateau

Speciality restaurants on board Arvia and their typical dishes

The Glass House Grilled whole tiger prawns, mango, chilli and garlic salsa

The Beach House Jerk chicken supreme with rice and peas, coleslaw, shallow-fried plantain and festivals

Epicurean Miso rack and slow-cooked lamb belly

Green & Co Feat. Mizuhana Chocolate earth plate with dark chocolate and beetroot pebbles, chocolate mushrooms, tarragon jelly, chocolate soil and non-dairy vanilla gelato

6th Street Diner New York strip steak with grilled asparagus, crispy shallows, garlic butter and fries

The Olive Grove Moroccan lamb tagineSindhu Duck tikka Mmalabari

The Keel and Cow The Prime Minister burger, ‘the best burger at sea'

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