(Guests gather on the decks of the American Queen for its christening ceremony Friday afternoon in Memphis.)
Priscilla Presley broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the American Queen in Memphis Friday afternoon, and the newly christened steamboat sailed up the Mississippi River, its calliope wailing in farewell.
On board were a new executive chef and a hotel manager and a new contract for a team from the Apollo Group to oversee and train dining and housekeeping staff, a hurriedly arranged response to complaints by guests on two pre-christening cruises about poor dining room service and other issues.
Christopher Kyte, president of Great American Steamboat Co., announced the "substantial changes ... that I believe will greatly elevate the onboard experience" in a letter to guests who disembarked from a New Orleans-to-Memphis cruise Friday morning. "We are grateful to all of you for your patience and good cheer on this, since this crew is trying terribly hard to do their best," Kyte wrote in the letter, which also offered guests a 50 percent discount on another 2012 cruise.
Great American Steamboat had hired about 200 new crew members, many of whom had little or no experience in the jobs they were hired for. Instead, Kyte and CEO Jeff Krida said, they were hired for their friendliness and helpful attitudes.
While many guests praised the staff for exactly those qualities -- in comments to the cruise line as well as to The Miami Herald -- they also complained about slow and haphazard food service and the quality of some food.
"It takes a long period of time for any new crew to gel and work together well," Kyte told the Herald. "The best restaurants tend to have staffs that have been there for years, they can work together almost without words. I think it will take another month before we get to that stage. I don't know how to leapfrog to that point."
Kyte and Krida hope the hiring of Apollo, which provides dining services to two small but high-end cruise cruise lines, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, will speed the process.
They also noted the hiring of a new executive chef, Eric Aldis, from the Ritz-Carlton in Houston, and a new hotel manager, Malcolm Chapple, from the Seabourn luxury cruise line.
Kyte said Aldis will complement Regina Charboneau, the ship's chef de cuisine. Charboneau, cookbook author and former San Francisco restaurateur, created Southern-themed menus and recipes for the ship but doesn't run the kitchen.
(At left, in her home in Natchez, Miss., Regina Charboneau talks to American Queen guests about entertaining and preparing food.)
Some of those dishes were not well-executed -- beignets with a cream crawfish sauce were served at room temperature instead of hot, some salads were made with wilted lettuce, pompano baked with julienned vegetables lacked seasoning.
"That is unacceptable. If you have a great recipe, you don't tamper with it," Kyte said. "We have hired a new executive chef who will execute Regina's menu."