Gary Buchanan talks us through the food on Explora Journeys

“We have the highest budget for food in the cruise industry,” boasted Franck Garanger, Head of Culinary at Explora Journeys. This was the first of several revelatory quips from this engaging chef during a chat with the founder of Panache Cruises, James Cole, in December on board EXPLORA I in the Caribbean. 

Franck's passion for cuisine began at his father’s pâtisserie-boulangerie in the Loire Valley. He recalled, “This inspired me to enrol as an apprentice at the age of 16 in the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Vert D’Eau in Angers with French Master Chef Jean-François Piers."  Tenures at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in Antibes were followed by working with such culinary luminaries as Paul Bocuse, Alain Passard and Thierry Marx. 

“By 1994, I decided to expand my horizons and joined Silversea Cruises. Within four years, I had been promoted to the position of Corporate Chef, at the age of just 27. I joined Oceania Cruises in 2003 as Culinary Director and am now celebrating thirty years at sea with an incredible new experience,” noted Garanger, now 55. The distinction of French Master Chef in the prestigious Maîtres Cuisenaires de France was bestowed on him in 2008.

When Garanger joined Explora Journeys in January 2022, the Aponte family gave him carte blanche to develop the best food at sea, bar none. As James discovered, reaching such culinary virtuosity didn't happen overnight. The chef takes up the story: “I was in charge of creating a culinary concept based on our owner’s vision of exploration. For a whole year, we developed the concept for the six restaurants with the entire team of executive chefs in a development kitchen in my home town of Angers. Suppliers from around the world sent speciality produce for us to consider – that's a first in the cruise industry. The team also visited gourmet events around Europe, meeting producers and sampling quality ingredients.”

A chef on Explora Journeys

It speaks volumes that Explora Journeys' ships have 129 chefs working in the multidisciplinary restaurant galleys (that's one chef for every seven guests). This is by far the highest ratio in the cruise industry. It also underscores that Garanger is the ideal person to helm this world-class team that is creating the best cuisine at sea. As gastro-cruisers are now discovering, Explora Journeys offer culinary bravura, where the quality of the produce and guest satisfaction are paramount. Mediocrity has no meaning for this uncompromising maître cuisinier, whose zeal for perfection is blazing an epicurean trail into a higher realm.

A recherché haven for 30 guests, Anthology showcases global cooking talents. In collaboration with Franck Garanger, a succession of the world’s most celebrated chefs create tasting menus that shine brightly in the culinary cosmos. One partner is Italian chef Mauro Uliassi, who gained three Michelin stars at his restaurant in Senigallia near Ancona, Italy. Another collaborator is Emma Bengtsson, executive chef at Aquavit NYC. Acclaimed for her creative interpretations of classic dishes and seasonal Nordic cuisine, she is the first female Swedish chef and the second US-based female chef to be awarded two Michelin stars.

Her eight-course coup de cuisine included: Caviar with Lemon Bavarois, Potato Crumble, Pickled Pearl Onion, Salted Cream, and Dill Oil; Hamachi Crudo; Smoked Venison Carpaccio; Lobster Bisque with Fennel, Pickled Tomatoes, Dill Emulsion, and Winter Chicory. Three choices followed: Turbot, with Salt-Baked Onion, Sea Buckthorn Hollandaise, Trout Roe, and Marble Potatoes; Wagyu Beef with Potato Terrine, Rosehip and Spring Onion Sauce, along with Lettuce Dressed in Buttermilk; or Mushroom Barlotto, with Confit Baby Carrots, Arugula and Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms. Two desserts included a Lingonberry Roulade, but the pièce de résistance was the Arctic Bird's Nest, created from Chocolate Twigs, Rich Goat Cheese Parfait and Fruity Blueberry Sorbet. 

Having savoured the Michelin-quality cuisine, James Cole declared it to be the “finest he had ever tasted at sea,” while the Arctic Bird's Nest took the accolade of “best dessert ever!” This is the only restaurant on EXPLORA I that has a surcharge. The tasting menu is €190, and the wine-pairing comes in at €75. There is also a connoisseur wine list, whose most prestigious inclusion is a 2011 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at €10,000. Currently, the complimentary pouring wines available throughout the ship are not served in Anthology. Hopefully, this policy will become more flexible for guests who have a preference for one of the excellent house wines.

Fil Rouge on Explora Journeys

There's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to culinary virtuosity. The owners had a clear vision that their ships should reflect a European lifestyle, and nowhere is this better showcased than at the five included à la carte restaurants. Banished is the concept of a main dining room; instead, there are two well-designed venues at the stern of Deck 4. While they might be adjacent, they are different in concept. Fil Rouge is refined and intimate, offering elevated classics from the French culinary repertoire; Med Yacht Club unveils several specialities of France, Italy, Spain, and Greece in surroundings that wouldn't look out of place in sassy rivieras along the Mediterranean coastline.

One deck above is Sakura, inspired by the tearooms of Kyoto, with dark wood frames and traditional Japanese artwork. The ceiling is festooned with cherry blossom trees garlanded with lanterns. This pan-Asian restaurant is popular at lunchtime, when an umami-packed menu of sushi platters and bento boxes is a highlight. In the evening (reservations advised), Japanese, Malaysian, Thai, and Vietnamese specialities are accompanied by Asian-influenced beverages overseen by a sake and shōchū sommelier. Our table dined family-style, and we agreed that the Lobster Pad Thai as well as Wagyu Beef Tataki, Wakame Salad, and Smoked Madagascan Pepper, were as authentic as they were delectable.  

Filet Mignon in the Marble & Co. Steakhouse on Explora Journeys

Also on Deck 5, and open each evening, Marble & Co. Grill is the other restaurant where reservations are recommended. Inspired by the marbling only found in the finest beef, the range of exceptional cuts is personally sourced and sustainably farmed. I was impressed with the appetiser of Crushed Fingerling Potatoes, Le Beurre Bordier Butter from Normandy, sustainable Calvisius Oscietra Caviar, Crème Fraîche, and Chives. The Grilled Prime Rib aged for 30 days and served with Cherry Tomatoes and Hollandaise Sauce was a taste sensation. The succulent steak came from the much-sought-after French Jersiaise breed, renowned for its luscious flavour and intense marbling. There are also short-loin cuts of beef from Germany and Sweden.

Spanning the entire width of the ship on Deck 11, and open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Emporium Marketplace is possibly Franck Garanger's greatest accomplishment. This casual dining option has a wow factor all of its own; it isn't a buffet, and there are no self-service stations. It's a speciality restaurant with a dizzying array of cuisines, all of which are fresh and of outstanding quality. From my point of view, it's a white marble temple for those who worship gastronomy.

There are 212 feet of cleverly designed countertops and 18 separate cooking stations attended by chefs preparing dishes à la minute. These evolve throughout the day to showcase cuisines representing every corner of the globe. To start the day, there's a gamut of freshly pressed juices, smoothies, and acai bowls. The sushi and sashimi counters attract food buffs, and the raw bar serving crab claws, oysters and mussels is the real deal. The boulangerie, charcuterie, fromagerie and pâtisserie stations, not to mention the fresh pasta station with dough especially imported from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, are sublime. There's also a rotisserie offering grilled, roasted, and slow-cooked meats. One thing everybody agrees about is that the pizzas prepared with great care by a dedicated chef surpass anything that hails from Naples or Rome. For those with a sweet tooth, the decadent dessert bar is the crowning glory of this culinary treasure trove.

Crema Café is a casual coffee bar that serves hot and cold drinks and a range of paninis and pâtisserie throughout the day. The Gelateria & Crepêrie at The Conservatory is a tempting ice cream, sorbet, and crepe counter. For guests who want to chill out, the in-suite dining menu is available 24 hours a day and features sandwiches, pasta, and cheeses, along with other cooked-to-order items. Every restaurant offers at least one vegan dish and multiple vegetarian options. Franck is currently enhancing the plant-based food concepts on Explora Journeys.

Dessert at Sakura on Explora Journeys

The Chef’s Kitchen is a hands-on immersive experience co-founded by Master Chefs Karen Dumonet and Jean-Louis Dumonet. Twelve participants take their place at the six induction tops for classes that last up to 2½ hours in the ocean-front private kitchen (fee applies). Speaking to James Cole during the cruise, Karen explained, “Our team of culinary experts leads guests through a hands-on journey of discovery of new ingredients, flavours, textures, and cultures that showcase the destinations the ship visits. In some instances, the chefs accompany the group to a market in a port like Sorrento to select ingredients that will be used in dishes they can enjoy back onboard the ship. When this isn't possible, the class learns how some of the popular dishes from our on-board restaurants are created.” One popular class is entitled: 'Ravioli and Spinach Tortellini di Ricotta'.

With skill and dedication, Franck Garanger has raised the bar for culinary sophistication at sea. The food hero and his team combine the finest ingredients from all over the world to create a palette of appetising finesse that's a hallmark of any Explora Journeys cruise.

Call Panache Cruises on 0161 513 8200 if you want to learn more about Explora Journeys.

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