Food Arts presents the July/August 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Christian Sauleau for restoring luxury cruise ship dining to its former grandeur—with modern twists.
Sauleau has strived to make the dinner table the focal point—even the raison d'etre—of a luxury cruise, first during his mercurial rise to director of hotel operations for the Royal Viking Line and for the past two years as vice president of operations of Italian-owned, Fort Lauderdale-based Silversea Cruises. A celebrity chef program that included the likes of Paul Bocuse, Jeremiah Tower, Lidia Bastianich, Alain Ducasse, and Daniel Boulud served as magnetic marketing tool and irresistible attraction for Royal Viking's four-ship fleet. In a similar vein, the relationship he began with Le Cordon Bleu while at Royal Viking has blossomed into a partnership between the famed cooking school and Silversea that include signature dishes created by Le Cordon Bleu for SilverSea's two ships and a program of classes taught by Le Cordon Bleu chefs.
"I strongly believe that the dining experience is the future and major point of a luxury cruise," the 41-year old Sauleau says. "Passengers spend a daily minimum of six hours around a table. They have no choice-except in a port-of-call—than to use the f&b outlets of the vessel. So we know how important food is for discriminating guests."
Sauleau's dining rooms abroad the twin 296-passenger Silver Cloud and Silver Wind operate according to the same principles that guide fine-dining restaurants ashore. He has instituted open seating, which, he believes, offers a more convivial evening for diners than the old luxury-linear tradition of assigned seating. "There are a lot of people who are eager to have fun in style," says Sauleau, who adds that guests usually linger at the table until 10:30 or so rather than rush through a dinner in order to participate in regimented entertainment programs, as they do on ships of other lines.
With the Silversea ships sailing the seven seas, Sauleau has introduced regional menus that reflect a cuisine's port-of-call or route, a less formal alternative to the regular menu. This concept which Sauleau calls "theme dining," could encompass a Parisian bistro diner (complete with accordian player) during a cruise along the coast of France, or a British pub meal while sailing off of England. Of course, says Sauleau, this is more casual dining experience still must come with "congenial service."
Silversea chefs often turn a port-of-call layover into a shopping trip for local provisions. A stop in St. Malo, for instance, affords Silver Clouds executive chef Adam Perchtold the opportunity to purchase fresh shellfish for the evening meal; when docked in Haiphong, Silver Wind executive chef Karl Muhlberger can gather ingredients for a Vietnamese dinner. And at any port, Sauleau is likely to surprise guests with a meal prepared aboard ship by an acclaimed local chef.
Sauleau was born in the shadow of the medieval castle in Angers, France. His career, starting with his days as a 16-year-old kitchen apprentice in the top local hotel, spans numerous positions in luxury service—hotel school in Paris, head waiter in a hotel in Bristol, England, running the officers' mess hall of the French army's Paris headquarters during his military service, maitre d' of Gaston Lenôtre's catering firm, and maitre d' aboard a French cruise ship. His first contact with Royal Viking came when one of its ships—the Royal Viking Sea—rescued Sauleau's French vessel after it ran aground off Honduras. Two years later, he came aboard officially, as a waiter on the Royal Viking Star. By age 32, in 1987, he had risen to vice president of hotel operations.
With Silversea, Sauleau oversees all aspects of the line's two ships—including repairs, outfitting, and scheduling—but his expertise lies in adding layers of insulating comfort and pleasure to the art of cruising. "With luxury vacation, all these elements count: door-to-door service, magnificent accommodations, brand-name amenities, high-quality dining, exotic destinations," Sauleau says, "Luxury means a sumptuous environment."