Chefs onboard Oceania Cruises sometimes finish dishes tableside. // © 2017 Oceania Cruises
Feature image (above): Be sure to book cooking classes in advance. // © 2017 Oceania Cruises
My partner placed our pan-fried chicken scaloppine onto our landing pad of paper napkins. Frank Sinatra beamed from the speakers. The smell of frying capers stirred my hunger, and I began to shuffle back and forth, like the waves in front of me.
Perhaps my excited dance was no accident. Guests consistently compare Oceania’s cooking classes to a ballet says Kathryn Kelly, executive chef and director of culinary enrichment for Oceania Cruises.
A statuesque blonde with a personality big enough to fill a room of hungry people, she seemed to me like the cruise line’s own Julia Child.
Kelly began to dole out glasses of the white wine we had used in our preserved-lemon risotto.
“If you’re going to cook with it, it should be good enough to drink,” she instructed.
Being a star student, I dutifully noted this along with her other tips — such as to test the temperature of the cooking oil with a breadcrumb — and accepted my glass.
Meanwhile, chef instructor Karlis Celms, a friendly Washington native and former restaurant and tour operator owner in Latvia, monitored our progress and provided feedback. Ensuring the success of our little ballet, Celms, along with two sous chefs and a dishwasher, kept our small group in high spirits and on the right note.
“Back when we started, people said, ‘You all are crazy — no one wants to go on a cruise to learn how to cook,’” said James Rodriguez, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Oceania. “But the classes are full every cruise. People love it.”
In 2009, Bob Binder, president and CEO of Oceania, brought in Kelly, a former chef from the Culinary Institute of America, to help design a professional culinary instruction center for hands-on learning onboard the line’s Marina and Riviera ships.
And it’s a captivating space — cruisers who happen upon The Culinary Center’s 12th-floor, ocean-view enclave can often be seen peeking into the classroom from its glass door.
Class themes are focused on technique, such as knife skills; on ingredients, such as the “Amore - Love of Lemons” class I took; on re-creating favorite dishes from Oceania’s specialty restaurants, modified for the home cook; and on destination-inspired cuisine. A new course offered on Cuba sailings, for instance, includes recipes adapted from the Cuban grandmother of Frank Del Rio, founder of Oceania and president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
A La Mode
“It’s very rare to have chefs designing ships, but that’s what happened here,” Rodriguez said.
We were in the midst of a galley tour of Marina, which claims to have more galley space per cruiser than any other ship on the high seas. According to Rodriguez, Marina measures in at 66,000 tons because of added space needed in galleys, versus its original estimate of 54,000 gross tons.
“Fincantieri [Oceania’s shipbuilders] said this was the first time they ever built a pair of ships around the galleys,” he said, referring to Marina and its sister ship, Riviera.
Oceania’s culinary team also participated in the design of the new galleys installed on Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena.
In the galleys, chef Laurent Trias, senior executive chef, told us his goal was to run the kitchens in the style of Michelin-starred restaurants.
“During service, everything is concentrated in one area,” Trias said. “But it’s very important to have everything separated during the mise en place; it’s better to have one cook in one area than three guys on the same table.”
Meanwhile, what excited Franck Garanger — a Maitre Cuisinier de France (Master Chef of France) and the Oceania culinary director behind the thousands of recipes circulating around the ship — was the fact that the line uses two different kinds of French flours for its baguettes. One is used for breakfast and lunch baguettes; the other for dinner baguettes, he told us, ogling his pile of perfectly golden gluten the way one might adore a newborn.
Trias and Garanger are French gourmands, and Jacques Pepin is Oceania’s executive culinary director; as a result, the food onboard reflects a French fine-dining sensibility. Throughout the ship, from the four specialty restaurants and two private dining spaces to the cafe and dining room, you’ll find beautiful, decadent meals — the type of cuisine that made one 70-year-old chef-passenger misty eyed.
“It’s the type of food you don’t really see anymore,” she said. “It’s done very well, especially considering the size of the ship.”
But Oceania’s food philosophy has continued to evolve. Though the French-style meals that Oceania launched with are still very much in vogue, they’re no longer the whole story.
“It’s a style of cooking and dining that consumers still crave, just not every evening,” Rodriguez said. “You also see classic, decadent dishes being morphed into updated classics.”
According to Trias, vegan food has been the No. 1 emerging trend onboard. In addition to gluten-free food, vegan dishes have become increasingly popular with non-vegan cruisers. As a result, the line recently expanded vegan options and has rolled them out onto regular — rather than advance-request — menus.
“The days of vegan or vegetarian options being a plate of vegetables are over,” Rodriguez said. “Guests are always seeking balance, especially on vacation. You may have an indulgent evening in Jacques and, the next evening, decide to chart a lighter course with Canyon Ranch Spa Cuisine or any of the vegan or vegetarian dishes on the menu.”
The line began testing a morning Raw Vegan Juice Bar concept in January, and it has been a smashing success, with cruisers lining up for good-for-you goodies such as chia-seed pudding, cold-brew coffee spiked with cashew “mylk,” fruit-and-vegetable smoothies and green juice.
The idea for the juice bar came from Garanger as well as Binder, who are both wine-loving foodies and fitness buffs.
“They want to ensure that we, as a brand, are not only providing the finest dining experiences at sea, but also the most comprehensive lifestyle experiences,” Rodriguez said. “That means always having the correct balance of culinary, fitness and wellness components that work in harmony with one another.”
On Oceania, gone are the days of the sedentary gourmand — made ever clear to me at Marina’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub fitness center, probably the most popular gym at sea I’ve ever used.
Oceania’s specialty restaurants are complimentary, but they’re elevated experiences nonetheless, each featuring unique menus, on-theme surprises and decor that even an interior-decorator passenger couldn’t stop gushing about to me.
For example, at pan-Asian Red Ginger, the line’s most popular restaurant, diners receive a tea menu, a selection of chopsticks from which to choose and hand towels that expand with liquid (for sanitizing before the edamame amuse-bouche). And at Toscana, the Italian eatery, guests select olive oil and balsamic vinegar from a detailed menu before any focaccia gets dipped.
Ambiances match each restaurant’s cuisine, adding to overall enjoyment. At Jacques, the eatery named after Pepin, it’s easy to think you’re in Provence, France, thanks to impressionist paintings, distressed mirrors and eggshell-yellow walls.
Lobster is by far the most-ordered item, Trias says, and surf-and-turf lovers won’t want to miss Polo Grill. But you don’t need to dine at a specialty restaurant to find gorgeous food and an upscale atmosphere. Terrace Cafe, the all-day buffet area onboard, features white tablecloth at dinner, along with a carving station and pasta cooked a la minute. And the Grand Dining Room, which also doesn’t require reservations, offers an extensive menu that matches the grandeur of its glass-blown chandeliers (think: foie gras stuffed in chicken breast, served with a mousseline of celery root and pistachio).
Along with Baristas — the specialty coffee bar that serves Illy espresso oftentimes pulled by an Italian staffer — my daily caffeine fix included afternoon tea, with a side of homemade scones, sandwiches and pastries.
Private dinners with wine tastings can be reserved at La Reserve by Wine Spectator and Privee, capped at 24 and 10 guests, respectively.
Culinary Discovery Tours
Fortunately for foodies, Oceania’s interest in cuisine isn’t confined to the walls of its ships.
After some of the folks who took cooking classes began “hanging around” the culinary center, asking chef Kelly and her instructors for tips on where to go in port for a local food experience, she began to design Culinary Discovery Tours. Launched in 2012, the tours are led by Kelly or a member of her team and take about 20 passengers on excursions to purveyors with deep roots in the local culinary scene.
“They’re not on the itineraries of other cruises or tours because they’re my personal friends,” she said.
Oceania offers Culinary Discovery Tours in 24 destinations around Europe and the Caribbean, including Argostoli, Rhodes and Corfu, Greece; Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia, Seville and Malaga, Spain; Casablanca, Morocco; Catania, Florence, Portofino, Taormina and Venice, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; Koper, Slovenia; Monte Carlo, Monaco; Oslo, Norway; Provence; Riga, Latvia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; Tallinn, Estonia; and Roatan, Honduras.
“I designed every tour myself,” Kelly said. “They’re like my children.”
Tour itineraries vary and include visiting suppliers of products specific to the region; dining at a destination restaurant after walking the markets; and learning about local food cultivation practices such as aquaculture (fish farming), biodynamic farming or hydroponics.
On my Roatan culinary tour, we visited a hydroponic farm, which is the only commercial source for produce on the entire island. There, we also sniffed, poked and ogled various edible plants and trees growing in the greenhouse and on the grounds that date back to Maya times, such as the sapodilla tree, whose sap is collected to produce chicle, still used in some gum today.
After sampling the farm’s vibrant fruit, we left armed with hydroponic-grown lettuce, which we would later eat after our cooking class with chef Samuel at La Palapa, an oceanside restaurant in Big French Caye.
There, Samuel, a towering local with a soft voice, taught us three ways to prepare Roatan’s pink shrimp as we snacked on salted casaba (crisps made from cassava flour), sipped on local beer and stole glimpses at the ocean beyond.
- Since culinary classes and tours are very limited, ask what classes are offered on your client’s cruise and book culinary classes and tours during final payment.
- Make specialty dining reservations for clients as soon as the reservation window opens, which varies by room category.
- Remember these reservation windows: day of final payment for Owner’s, Vista and Oceania Suites; 75 days prior to departure for Penthouse Suites; 60 days prior to departure for Concierge Veranda staterooms; and 45 days prior to departure for Veranda, Oceanview and Inside staterooms.
- Make bookings for your clients by going online into the reservation system or by calling passenger services.
- If clients are interested in cooking classes and more dining options, opt for the Marina or Riviera vessels.