With the launch of Marina in 2011, Oceania Cruises pioneered a gastronomic focus for ocean cruising. To complement the five specialty gourmet restaurants aboard the 1,250-passenger vessel, Marina was the first in the cruise industry to feature a hands-on teaching kitchen. Now Marina and sister ship Riviera present a broad range of cooking classes as well as gastronomically oriented shore excursions. Cruise passengers were so enthusiastic about Oceania’s culinary cruises that 750-passenger Regent Seven Seas Explorer launched in 2016 with a similar, if slightly more luxe, program. (Oceania and Regent are the small-ship lines of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.) Kathryn Kelly, the executive chef and director of culinary enrichment, puts it all together for both lines. We spoke with her recently about the pleasures of food and travel — and what she aims to accomplish with the cooking classes and food-oriented forays ashore.
Q. It must have seemed like a gamble to build a teaching kitchen on a cruise ship.
A. I had been in the world of public health and business before I went back midcareer to get a degree at the Culinary Institute of America. I had just started teaching in their continuing education program so I knew how passionate people were about watching the Food Network and about coming to the CIA boot camps. When I joined Oceania in 2011, we didn’t know how much people would want to put on an apron and spend two hours in the kitchen when they were on vacation. It was a calculated risk, but it worked.
Q. We’ve heard that the classes are so popular that they always have a waiting list. What is their appeal?
A. Cooking is a very creative outlet. But I think the biggest thing is the sense of accomplishment. Guests have learned something and they’re bringing it home. A lot of them go home and have a party. I might have shown them how to make sangria and paella and some tapas in Spain. Or how to make three different kinds of crepes in Sweden. We give them all the recipes and they have a party when they get home and talk about their trip. When I was younger, we used to go to people’s houses and they would pull out their projector and show us their slide show. Now they can cook for their friends. It’s a wonderful thing when you are able to cook for your friends and family with a sense of joy and adventure.
Q. What are some of your favorite classes?
A. In the technique series, my favorite is the fish class. We teach eight different techniques for cooking fish in two hours. I also like the classes where we try to create authentic dishes of our ports of call — Morocco, Greece, Turkey, the Baltics. The classes are a chance to teach the culinary history and the ingredients and techniques that are all part of the place. We are launching a new class by popular demand called “Slice of Life.” People want to know how to buy a knife, how to hold a knife, how to sharpen a knife, how to make various cuts.
Q. How do you approach planning the Culinary Discovery and Gourmet Explorer shore excursions, for Oceania and Regent, respectively?
A. We offer between 40 and 50 tours in the Caribbean, the Baltics, the Mediterranean, Asia Pacific, and South America. Some of our guests are very well-traveled and some are visiting a destination for the first time. I try to create something that helps them see the place through a little bit different lens. I start by thinking about what I would want to do if I had one day in a specific port. We take people to local places where fishermen are just pulling the fish out of the water and we take them to three-star Michelin restaurants. In Uruguay, we teach guests how to dig out the hole and put the wood in exactly right to make a barbecue. In Tuscany, we have a meal prepared by a local chef in one of the former Medici hunting lodges. We taste the wine and olive oil from the property. People on their first visit to Tuscany get a sense of the countryside. Even for people who have been to Florence a hundred times, this is a once in a lifetime experience.
Q. What is one of your favorite Culinary Discovery Tours?
A. I like creating an experience where people get to know me and my chefs and where they get to meet their local hosts and hear their stories. They are not on a bus tour having a guide point out buildings. One of the tours that is most special to me is in Rhodes, Greece, right on the Turkey border.
I had eaten at a family restaurant for years and I asked them to open up their restaurant so that our guests could learn what it is like to have a family-owned restaurant in Greece. The papa was a baker. He’s in his 90s. His son is a fisherman. They bring in fresh fish every day. They teach people how to tell if an octopus is fresh. We make food with them and then we sit down and eat and drink wine.
Q. What do travelers gain by approaching a destination from a gastronomic point of view?
A. There is a growing segment of people who travel to experience the world through food and wine. It’s part of the search for authenticity. It’s really fun for people to get to know a place by something other than churches and art and statues. I love churches and art and statues. But to taste the food and learn the history of the food is a unique and different way to get to know where you are. I love to eat. But I’m always curious about the foods of a particular region from the perspective of the history, the culture, family life, and farm life. The connections between the cuisine, the ingredients, and the traditions of a place are very compelling. It’s just a fascinating way to study the world.
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