The cruise line's dazzling Petit Chef dinner show is a taste of what's to come on Celebrity's Edge-class ships

Taking a seat at the Silk Harvest dining room of the Celebrity Solstice, we are told to expect a surprise.

The bare white tables without table cloths and simple tableware are deceptively simple. The only sign of what's about to be served up are the glowing rings around the dinner plates, projected from above.

"Don't move your plates, and you'll want to keep anything dark - phones and notebooks - off the table," says the Solstice's hotel director Mario Valentino.

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Tablemations: The meal is broken up with full-scale table projections. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Tablemations: The meal is broken up with full-scale table projections. Photo / Thomas Bywater

As the lights dim four tiny chefs – for four courses – are projected onto the table top. The animations, no bigger than your thumb set about preparing virtual versions of the dishes we are about to eat on the white plates in front of us.

Developed by the Belgian animators of Skullmapping and Tablemation for Celebrity Cruises, it's a "first-of-a-kind cruise experience," explains New Zealand general manager Mark Kinchley, who is hoping it will be a point of difference for Kiwis choosing to cruise out of Auckland.

And it's all about timing.

No sooner than the animation has finished a decidedly non-virtual plate of food is dished up by waiting staff.

Dim the lights: It's hard to work out who the tiny chef's $90 menu is for. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Dim the lights: It's hard to work out who the tiny chef's $90 menu is for. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Presentation is fantastic, with small details in the dish and trails of garnish further supporting the illusion of that these are dishes created by a tiny cook.

It's hard to know who the little Chef and friends are there to entertain.

The menu is simple, with sophisticated ingredients but with a couple of flavours teenagers might baulk at. The green Matcha pudding with wasabi, in particular, was a divisive dish on our table.

Chef's table: The tiny cast of animated chefs prepare virtual dishes for a real four-course meal. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Chef's table: The tiny cast of animated chefs prepare virtual dishes for a real four-course meal. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Meanwhile dazzling animations which play out across the table can be a bit childish, with small chefs seam-rolling pasta with a tiny diggers or taking slapstick falls in Bearnaise sauce.

At US$55 (or just under $90) you might think twice before bringing the kids.

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The flagship dining event on Solstice is the $220 "Chef's Table" experience designed by Daniel Boulud. A more expensive but also slightly more grown-up dining experience which grants you behind-the-scenes access to the kitchen galley and the preparation of a five-course meal.

Chef Mahout arrives in Toques Blanche, towering over the tiny table projections to ask how our meal was. I guess he can't let the team of virtual chefs take all the credit.

The concept, like a lot of the newest introductions to Celebrity's ships, began on the new Celebrity Edge. The flagship Celebrity Edge is first of five futuristic Edge-class ships, one of which which Kinchley is hoping will eventually arrive in New Zealand waters.

Celebrity Edge: Celebrity's flagship vessel. Photo / Supplied
Celebrity Edge: Celebrity's flagship vessel. Photo / Supplied

"What's happening with the Edge class is that Celebrity hasn't had a new ship for 5-6 years," said Gavin Smith, MD for Royal Caribbean Australia and New Zealand was also attending.

"What we're doing is taking that Edge product and pushing it back through the fleet, like the Petit Chef."

He too would love to see Auckland welcome one of the future 3,000 passenger Edge-class ships and Royal Caribbean's 4,905 capacity Ovation of the Seas, but says it is all a matter of port extensions.

At the moment Ovation must remain in the Auckland harbour, and a turnaround of passengers in port is all but impossible.

The controversial plans for a harbour "dolphin" allowing larger ships to dock have been dragging on, which Smith sees as a missed opportunity not only for Auckland but New Zealand.

"It does a disservice to the country. There is significant congestion in Sydney," he says with ports serving the Pacific Islands failing to take advantage of what has been 15 years of disruption.

"It will just go on and on, and on," says Smith. "What will happen is that overflow will go to Brisbane," which is gearing up its cruise operations while Auckland flounders on the questions of harbour extensions.

Meanwhile, with or without the expansion, New Zealand continues to welcome Celebrity's smaller ships and even smaller chefs.

Solstice is returning to Auckland eight times this season and her grass lawns and revamped dining options are sure to be more than adequate for New Zealand and international guests.

Celebrity Solstice: RCL's New Zealand 'Nursery' for future cruisers. Photo / Supplied
Celebrity Solstice: RCL's New Zealand 'Nursery' for future cruisers. Photo / Supplied

"She's a beautiful ship, the highest rated in the region and she is out nursery," explains Smith.

The Celebrity Solstice is part of a drive to encourage New Zealand cruisers to buy into the brand and try cruises on the wider Celebrity fleet.

Something smith refers to as his "cunning plan to take over Europe with Aussies and Kiwis using one of the world's greatest ships."