Oh, Michelin, you're a blessing and a curse. I'm in Taipei, it's a Saturday morning and the taxi I'm in has just come to a halt directly outside the recipient of a coveted star in the inaugural and recently published restaurant guide named after a French tyre maker.
As I settle the fare, the taxi driver chuckles, his tone conveying far more mirth than sympathy, as he observes the fearful queue his hapless passenger has confronted. The line extends not only down this street but also performs a dog-leg around the corner and, as I discover on inspection, all the way up a flight of stairs to the unseen premises.
Yet get this: the restaurant in question in the food-obsessed Taiwanese capital is not some upmarket cordon bleu affair but a glorified breakfast stall, located in a dingy marketplace, specialising in dishes such deep-fried dough stick, freshly roasted buns, egg crepes and savoury or sweet soy milk, served hot or cold. It's the stuff of a quintessential and delectable morning repast for many Taiwanese and one I sampled with relish at a rival outfit on a previous visit to Taiwan.
Here in the Zhongzheng district of Taipei, I hardly have 60 minutes to spare, let alone six hours, and I regrettably must forsake the breakfast restaurant Fu Hang Soy Milk and its queue. I'd tried to squeeze in the visit before my departure by ship from Keelung City, Taipei's port, to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, the southernmost Japanese island group, in just a few hours. But all is not lost on the Michelin front. Fortunately, I've come to Taipei to rendezvous with two chefs, Taiwanese-American Richard Chen and Frenchman Emmanuel Renaut, both of whom have Michelin Guide pedigrees and who now operate separate restaurants, Harmony and La Mer, aboard the massive Majestic Princess.
At 330 metres in length and with capacity for 3560 passengers, the luxurious Majestic Princess arrives in Sydney for her inaugural Australian 2018-19 summer season on September 15. During her stay in the South Pacific the Majestic Princess will sail on 16 cruises to destinations such as New Zealand and Fiji and, in Australia, Tasmania.
This particular brief, three-day cruise between Taipei and Naha is packed with excitable, though impeccably behaved, Taiwanese passengers – many clearly on their first cruise – determined to enjoy every waking minute of this return passage across the East China Sea. For me it's an opportunity to experience the newest ship in the Princess fleet and also to meet the chefs, sample their cuisine and gain a sense of the challenges that they confront in cooking at sea in their efforts to achieve the standards of their land-based establishments.
Above all, I'm satisfied in the knowledge that unlike Fu Hang Soy Milk back in Taiwan, and its other newly anointed Michelin Guide counterparts, there's going to be no need to queue to get into Harmony and La Mer, even factoring in the size of Majestic Princess. Who's laughing now, Taipei cabbie?
After settling in aboard the ship over a delicious lunch at the casual Chopsticks Noodle Restaurant on the pool deck, the Majestic Princess eventually pulls away from the wharf beside the prosaic Keelung City, a series of Buddhist monuments and temples visible atop lush hillsides behind and above the roofs of grey, tired-looking office and apartment blocks.
Once dining on an ocean cruise liner was confined to perhaps a couple of venues with set dining times, including one large space patrolled by stuffy, waistcoated waiters with anachronistic silver wine tasting cups dangling around their necks serving pretentious food cooked by avowedly anonymous chefs.
It's not news that cruise lines in recent times have recognised that their passengers don't want to leave their lifestyle, including their appreciation of fine food, back on the dock when they take a cruise holiday.
In recent years, Princess Cruises, like many other cruise lines, have signed a legion of celebrity chefs, including the high-profile Australian Curtis Stone, who has introduced his contemporary approach to cooking aboard the Emerald, Ruby and Sun Princess ships.
For Chen and Renaut the association with a cruise line is barely a year old. Chen's former Las Vegas restaurant, Wing Lei, was the first Chinese establishment in the US to be awarded a Michelin star, while Renaut's intimate Flocons de Sel restaurant and chalet, located in the mountain village of Megeve, is one of only 27 three-star Michelin restaurants in all of France.
If Renaut is away from Flocons de Sel, which boasts a staff of 20 chefs for a maximum of 30 guests at each sitting, it does not open at all to guests, a policy that couldn't possibly succeed in respect to La-Mer, the French bistro he's created for Princess Cruises. So he has entrusted one of his chefs from Flocons de Sel to take the reins.
Here aboard Majestic Princess, as it steams across the East China Sea to Okinawa, Renaut's La-Mer could hardly be further from those landlocked French Alps. Wisely, Renaut hasn't attempted to recreate his French Alps restaurant but instead devised an entirely new "updated French bistro" model with a menu full of classic dishes with modern twists.
Chefs such as Chen and Renaut, and Stone, too, for that matter, confront challenges in their efforts to create food of a similar calibre that their guests enjoy in their restaurants on terra firma. For safety reasons it's not possible to use gas on a cruise ship, which poses a dilemma for a cuisine like Cantonese which traditionally depends on the intense heat emanating from woks with induction burners serving as a substitute.
Along with negotiating an array of regulations, there's also the challenge of carefully determining the quantity of ingredients to order for a voyage, though on Princess there is the ability to top up produce at local ports.
Chen is known as the "duck master" for his ability to create incomparable tender, flavourful dishes using the bird. He says he's pleased, within the limitations of a cruise ship galley, to have devised a way to cook duck aboard Majestic Princess, allowing him to serve it with the requisite moisture, juiciness and, perhaps most importantly, the mandatory caramelised skin.
At Harmony, duck features in dishes such as Peking duck salad, lettuce, almond, orange and truffle oil vinaigrette as well as a soup of shredded roasted duck with dried scallop. But Harmony is not just a duck-fest, with the menu including standout dishes like sizzling chicken casserole, shallot, Sichuan sun-dried pepper and desserts, such as mango sago soup with pistachio gelato and sake marinated melon, passionfruit foam with coconut pineapple ice-cream.
These Cantonese dishes compare more than favourably with Renaut's inventive dishes such as supremely tender roast pork tenderloin, rich jus, coffee sabayon, mushroom tart and roasted potato dish and an equally impressive snapper and scallop mouselline on a thin toasted bread slice with lemongrass lobster sauce.
Of course, this quality of dining doesn't come cheap, though it's considerably more affordable than most Michelin-starred establishments. For the pleasure of dining at Harmony, passengers pay a nominal $29 over charge for five courses: an entrée, one soup, one main course, one vegetable, rice or noodle dish and a dessert. At La Mer there's a cover charge of $35 for four courses including one "welcome dish", one entrée, one main and a dessert.
But if you think cooking Michelin-standard food at sea is a challenge, imagine the pressure wrought on chefs, particularly those in France, where such stress has even led to tragic consequences. Renaut remains pragmatic about his status, a quality which may have led him to sign with Princess in the first place, apparently only the second French Michelin chef to sign with a cruise line.
"I love the pressure," he says, of not only being a three-star Michelin chef but the annual strain of retaining the citation. "I wake up happy every morning and look forward to going to work. If one day I develop [high] blood pressure I will do something else."
Back in Taipei, after three days or so of dining aboard Majestic Princess I'm feeling pleased with my decision to have obsessively opted for the stairs on the multi-storey ship rather than taking the elevators. It's tempting to try another visit to Fu Hang Soy Milk but likely wiser to skip a meal or three. Then again, by the time I got to the end of that damned queue I'd probably be ravenous again for yet another stellar Michelin feed.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ABOARD MAJESTIC PRINCESS
The onboard Lotus Spa features the largest thermal suite at sea, allowing guests to create their own circuit between hydro-therapy pool, heated loungers, Turkish Hammam, a dry-heat sauna, steam room and sensory showers.
The elaborate Fantastic Journey onboard stage show considered is the most technologically advanced at sea, and Majestic is the first ship to operate drones (really) as a stage prop during a production.
SeaWalk is an 18 metres long, see-through glass walkway suspended nearly 40 metres above the ocean. The first of its kind at sea, to add to the effect, the walkway extends more than eight metres from the side of the ship.
Majestic Princess' Hollywood Pool Club features a covered swimming pool with an imposing lattice-like glass dome ensuring both the water temperature and the environment stays comfortable in all weather conditions.
Majestic Princess has the largest shopping space at sea, with more than 1000 square metres of retail featuring prestige brands such as Bvlgari, Cartier and Chopard.
Balcony fares for a 12-night cruise on Majestic Princess to New Zealand, departing Sydney on Friday, January 25, 2019, start from $2689 a person twin share. Guests receive $200 of onboard spending per room when a balcony cabin or above is booked before June 30, 2018, as part of Princess Cruise's "Balcony Bonanza" sale. For more information phone 13 24 88 or see a licensed travel agent. The offer is subject to availability, conditions apply. See princess.com
Anthony Dennis travelled aboard Majestic Princess as a guest of Princess Cruises.