Dining on American Cruise Lines

Thomas Leonard headshot
••• Chef Thomas Leonard. American Cruise Lines

Small-ship cruising is a world away from the mega-ships, especially when it comes to personalizing the product to meet guests’ interests and tastes.

American Cruise Lines has always prided itself on personalization. Its small-ship fleet offers scenic, intimate cruises in the US.They're the largest cruise operator in the US.

From the Northeast to the Mississippi to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, they offer more than 35 itineraries in all.

Eight vessels carry from 50 to 185 passengers. 

The vessels are American built, flagged and crewed. That's one big difference from most ocean-going lines. Historians, naturalists and other local experts offer daily lectures on history, geography and culture of the region. 

One area in which the line particularly excels is cuisine.

Its highly-rated "Cruise Local. Eat Local" initiative emphasizes locally-sourced ingredients for fresher, more authentic fare. It also furthers a sustainability mission, supporting local producers and economies. 

A Chef's Vision

Cruise Local. Eat Local is the brainchild of Thomas Leonard III, the line’s corporate executive chef.

Leonard is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He supervises all the culinary operations of the cruise line. In addition to spearheading the Cruise Local. Eat Local program, he develops recipes, plans menus, trains staff and is involved in overall quality control.

Leonard also serves as president and instructor at a local chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

About.com spoke with Leonard about his vision and inspiration for Cruise Local. Eat Local. He was taking a cruise on the Columbia and Snake rivers at the time, furthering his mission for locally-sourced produce, wines and artisanal goods.

Q:  Tell us how this program came about.

A:  When I came to the company I did a lot of research on our itineraries and where we traveled. I started to build my menus based on where we are in the country.

I’m on Queen of the West here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s an amazing part of the country. We’re going up and down the Columbia River and we’re meeting with as many local vendors as we can.

Q:  How is Cruise Local. Eat Local different from the prior way of doing things at American Cruise Lines?

A:  We used to get most of our food items from one large company. I heard a lot of complaints from chefs that the quality wasn’t that good. So this is a definite improvement not only as far as the passengers, but the chefs as well.

Q: Everyone wants to eat local if they can. But it isn’t always practical for us at home. It can be pretty expensive for one thing. How are you making it work on a cruise line?

A:  Well we set our minds to it. It’s actually been more cost effective than we realized. We’re not flying everything to Florida and provisioning from there. We find the highest quality goods at the best price. The important thing is that it’s fresh and that’s what people want today. Dining is a top factor for cruise passengers, and we’re happy to be making such a difference for our guests.

Q:  Did you have to rewrite the recipes that you serve onboard once you implemented the program? 

A:  I’ve written recipes that go with the new ingredients that we’re getting. We have touch screen monitors in all the galleys. Chefs can follow along so that we have consistency. They all do such an incredible job. Because of the size of the ships, the galleys aren’t very big. Our staffs aren’t that big either. Most of our chefs are culinary school grads. They love doing what they do.

Q:  How did you go about sourcing locally when the company was used to using a food supplier and a warehouse? Seems like a big change in the culinary corporate culture.

A:  It was actually a pretty easy fix. We researched quite a bit, obviously. We looked up all we could find about produce companies and farms along our routes.

We looked into fish and meat houses. Even small things like artisanal cheese companies we started using.

Today, we have a seafood delivery from a local source here in Stephenson Washington. We just picked up some beautiful micro greens and mushrooms from Washington and Oregon. The beauty of it all is that we travel to some of the most fertile regions of the country. Why not take advantage of it?

Q:  How did you manage to make such big changes? It seems like it involved an incredible amount of work.

A:  I have one person that helps me in the home office. He contacts companies and I come on the cruises to meet with them. I take a look at samples, tour warehouses and get to meet them personally. One of my favorite stops we make is in Astoria, Oregon. They have an awesome market every Sunday morning. It’s pretty famous actually. I take the chefs on board down there for a walk. We might buy some funky produce or locally-produced honey. I found a great salmon company there. You never know what you will encounter. That’s what makes this type of provisioning pretty special.

Q:  It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time on the ships while you implemented the program. 

A:  Being on the ships was a key part of making this work. My first year I spent the majority of my time on ships. I was in the office during the month of January until mid-February. I did a lot of teaching on board to make sure the entire team is comfortable with the program. What we do on one vessel is not the same as on another vessel.  

Q:  Is Cruise Local. Eat Local been implemented on all of the ships?

A:  Yes, it’s been implemented on each of our vessels. We have to grow and sustain it now. The company is growing tremendously. It’s an extremely personalized product. Agents and passengers can really get a sense of that personalization when they experience the cuisine and the philosophy behind it.

Q:  The menus are customized by region, right? Can you give us some examples?

A:  Sure. I won’t put the same things on the menu on the Queen of the Mississippi that I’m using fresh in the Pacific Northwest for example. Last year I was in Washington state on Queen of the West. I met with a local ice cream company. Now we’re serving their all-natural ice cream on board. They use Washington and Oregon State Farmers Association blackberries and huckleberries. They get mint from the base of Mt. Rainier, and even use organic fair trade coffee as an ingredient.

In other cases entire recipes will change or the ingredients will vary by region. We may use jumbo lump crab, Dungeness crab or King crab, depending on where we are. On the east coast, the vessels change region often. They get different menus and seasonal changes.

Q:  This may be unfair but do you have a favorite region of the country and time of year?

A:   My favorite menus are summer time in Maine and the Hudson River in the fall. But we have great menus throughout the year. I think our style of cuisine is simple but elegant. We do a Lewis and Clark cruise, based on what they ate beginning in Virginia.

Q:  What about other items that you prepare in house, such as your breads and pastries. How have those evolved under Cruise Local. Eat Local?

A:  We bake fresh bread for lunch and dinner. We vary the exact items depending on the itinerary. In New England we offer an authentic New England brown bread. We have Tillamook cheddar biscuits on other ships. We bake so much bread it’s pretty amazing. Even our beverages, certain beers, wines and sodas, are sourced locally where we can. On the Columbia River, we’ve got a local beer. We do a skirt steak marinated in a local rum. We have a blackberry steak sauce that goes perfectly with it. We do almost everything in house because it tastes so much better. We make our own dressings and vinaigrettes. We make our own king salmon burgers. We just spent the morning hand dicing salmon.

Of course, if someone simply wants a grilled cheese or a hamburger, we make it for them. They’re on vacation. We make what they want.

Menu Highlights

If you're planning a cruise on American Cruise Lines, here are some Cruise Local. Eat Local. menu highlights to look forward to.

Columbia and Snake Rivers cruises

  • Freshly caught Northwest salmon and sturgeon brought directly to Queen of the West
  • Walla Walla onions, Astoria honey, Rainier cherries, and plump heirloom tomatoes gathered at local farmers’ markets
  • Local wines from vineyards on the banks of the Columbia River
  • Unique ice creams produced nearby featuring mint, huckleberries, and cherries

 Mississippi River cruises

  • Certified Berkshire pork from Berkwood Farms, a local vendor in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Artisan cheeses made from cow, sheep, and goats’ milk. They're sourced from nearby dairy farms and creameries in Wisconsin.
  • Famous Memphis barbeque sauce
  • Abita beer, the most renonwed locally-brewed beer in New Orleans
  • Freshly-made pralines, symbolic of New Orleans

Southeast United States cruises

  • St. Michael's crab basket with corn and tomatoes. Maryland's famous blue crabs are served in a variety of ways including seared, deep-fried, and roasted.
  • Apalachicola Bay oysters, which are hand harvested in Florida and served with mango pico de gallo and horseradish jelly
  • Fresh wild-caught Georgia shrimp is served in shrimp cocktails, seafood salads, and various entrées
  • Locally-grown Georgia peaches, Georgia pecans, Vidalia onions, berries, cabbage, watermelon, and Silver Queen corn are included in a number of recipes.

 Northeast United States cruises

  • Lobster bake features fresh Maine lobster served in more than 28 different styles.
  • Maine Root Blueberry soda is a local specialty served on board. It's made with Fair Trade organic cane juice and Maine blueberries.
  • Craft beers such as Lobster Ale and Allagash Beer from local breweries are also on board.