For a long time I ignored the cruise ship fliers that packed my mailbox, because they triggered a vague sense of dread. This had everything to do with the last ship I had boarded, years before, when I decided to delay my return home from a college semester abroad by booking a last-minute cabin on a meandering euro cruise. Clearly I hadn’t thought things through.
At the time I had a big head of unkempt hair, really more hair than anyone needs, and while that had proved popular in London, my fellow cruisers were more ambivalent. When I showed up to my assigned seating in the formal dining hall at the epic round table my first night at sea, my table-mates, decked out in sparkly cocktail dresses and ship-ahoy blazers, seemed congenial enough. When I showed up for dinner the second night, though, I sat down to an empty table. “They all switched seats,” my lone waiter said, eyeing my hair nervously.
Though the sense of rejection stung a bit, it wasn’t any worse than the freakish parade of dishes that landed on that table in the course of the week, a buffet that veered between the arcane and inexplicable. There was lots of poached fish with bloodshot maraschino cherry eyes, and chewy dinner rolls, and vats of wild rice. Only the old-school fancy food desserts salvaged things: the drama of the flaming crêpes suzette; the mystery of the baked Alaska, which I pictured as a chunk of flambéed tundra when I first saw it listed on the menu.
The twin trauma of abandonment and bad food, though, wasn’t enough to dissuade me from boarding a cruise ship again a few years ago. I was drawn by word that cruising had undergone a sea change, and my rebound voyage on a Crystal cruise proved it. Forget indifferent dining and limp buffets. Finally recognizing the lure of serious food, cruise lines were cooking up something edible. On the Crystal cruise, the revolution translated into an eclectic range of dynamic, open-seating restaurants, including a top-form Nobu, and enough cooking panels and demos to satisfy a fresh generation of savvy, foodcentric travelers.
Cruising’s culinary revolution
Trends evolve at an accelerated pace these days, and the second wave of the great cruising culinary revolution is already upon us. The most recently inaugurated fleet of ships aren’t content to simply dish up a few top chefs and some serious restaurants. Morphing into floating master classes in all things foodie — a kind of full-scale gastronomic immersion — the newest ships offer everything from state of the art demo kitchens and an entire boatload of global dining rooms to culinary-themed port-of-call excursions that wind through local spice markets and regional kitchens.
The Oceania Cruises’ Riviera ship — tellingly christened in 2012 by chef Cat Cora, the ship’s official godmother — may be the best emblem of this shift in cruising, and was reason enough to sign up for my third cruise. Designed to offer a curated gastronomic adventure, the ship seems to think big. I could see that my initial night on board, when I joined a fall Mediterranean sailing that meandered from Istanbul through the Greek islands on its way to Italy. After surveying the midsize ship’s glossy interiors, I had to decide where to eat first. On Riviera, that takes time because the range of dining rooms includes (take a deep breath): the Grand Dining Room; the Italian-themed Toscana; the Polo Grill steakhouse; the pan-Asian Red Ginger; the Terrace Café buffet; the Waves Grill, and the French brasserie Jacques, overseen by uber-haute chef Jacques Pepin and the first restaurant to ever bear his name.
Deciding to start light, I opted for Red Ginger, and the restaurant offered its own immediate lesson. This wasn’t some glib sushi-to-satay afterthought. The dining room itself was a coherent, understated sweep of black lacquer and red Buddha heads, and everything I sampled was a study in authenticity, from a plate of caramelized tiger prawns tossed with chili, garlic and scallions to a velvety miso-glazed sea bass and a red curry thick with chicken, Thai eggplant and lime leaves.
The Riviera’s sheer dogged culinary dedication was even more apparent the next day when I joined the cooking class led by Kathryn Kelly. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Kelly initially agreed to devote three months to helping set up the Oceania’s cooking schools. “Three years later,” she tells me, “I’m still here.”
Her main perch is the ship’s multi-multi-million-dollar granite and marble epic Bon Appétit Culinary Center, established in conjunction with the magazine, where five chefs work in rotation to provide an expansive range of classes focused on both technique and global cuisine. Kelly’s own star quality was apparent from the second the class filed in, as her fans lined up to pose with the chef for photos, and ask her to autograph their toques and aprons.
“I don’t have a Gordon Ramsay gene in my body; I’ve never yelled at anyone in my life,” Kelly announced as we finally assumed our positions at the 12 gleaming cooking stations. “Chef Boyardee yourself up,” she laughed, helping people put on their toques (“very stylish”), before leading the kind of fluid class that became a lesson, first, in how to taste. “Play with your bean paste like it’s a blank canvas,” she exhorted, urging us to try out different olive oils and brighten flavors with lemon. My own white bean tapenade slumped into something you could use as conditioner but Kelly came over and massaged life back into it. By the time we started in on the semolina spinach cakes, the watermelon and tomato salsa and the yogurt parfaits — all examples of light Mediterranean cuisine — I was hitting something of a novice’s stride.
Designed as a seamless culinary experience linking the ship to its culinary ports of call, Kelly’s daily cooking classes play a sweet duet with the passing scenery, so each lesson focuses on recipes and ingredients native to the specific region.
Kelly also breaks down the wall separating ship and port in more radical ways, too. “We have a huge group who really want to learn how people cook and eat in the places we visit,” she tells me with a missionary’s zeal. That drive has led to the Riviera’s perhaps most popular, and defining, feature: a wide range of onshore Culinary Discovery Tours. On these tours, Kelly or one of her crew guides a group of no more than 24 people through vineyards and back-road farms, fish and spice markets, regional kitchen and insider restaurants. Along the way, they meet fishermen, winemakers, truffle hunters and pastry chefs, plus the local grandma who makes the best stuffed grape leaves or blue-ribbon cassoulet. Call it a dedicated food safari, an intrepid exploration of the local culinary ecosystem.
That’s what I’d called it after I experienced one of Kelly’s patented adventures, her Istanbul Culinary Discovery Tour. This wasn’t some shambling, low-key nosh around town. The first stage of our manic gastronomic tour was a foray through the city’s fish market, where the silvery scales of the bluefish, sea bass and sea bream were glinting like sequins. Then we stopped at a restaurant for an Ottoman lunch before Kelly guided us to the spice market, handing us 10 euros each and assigning us the task of buying the best ingredients in sight to haul back to the ship for our Turkish cooking class.
“Pistachios,” she coached, “are not in season now so you need to taste and look for the reddish-green ones; otherwise you could get a 45-year-old nut.”
She was wrong. Distracted by the dizzying casbah, I would end up buying what might in fact have been 95-year-old nuts, embalmed in their shells like desiccated corpses, but it didn’t matter. The whirl of the market was compensation enough, the high pyramids of purple pomegranates, the mounds of golden saffron and the reddest paprika, the flash of silver teapots.
Ambitious food explorations
“That was typical of our city tours,” Kelly told me back in the kitchen as we prepared to start cooking, “but our rural ones can be even more ambitious. In Crete we go up into a mountain village, spend the day working alongside a local grandmother, mother and daughter, grating zucchinis, rolling grape leaves, and then eating lunch on a stone terrace overlooking the sea and a family of goats.”
All that curated authenticity suggests an ongoing sense of mission that rarely fails the Riviera, so the occasional minor lapses I noticed in the course of the week were easy to excuse. The manic, splashy funhouse Cirque-like décor that gilds the ship’s public spaces is a matter of taste; thankfully all the Day-Glo blown glass and candy-colored paintings don’t follow you into the understated, surprisingly airy cabins. The standard-issue cruise ship entertainment proved to be the usual Vegas Strip mix of standup comics and spangled, high-kicking chorus lines. And at least one restaurant, the Toscana — judging from my dinner — should probably rethink its menu of oddly leaden raviolis.
But ultimately those slips barely register on a ship that gets even the buffet right. Offering anything but your usual culinary walk of shame, the Terrace Café’s nightly smorgasbord would end up featuring some of my best bites on board, including a classic butter-spitting grilled lobster tail and a very creamy raspberry white mousse cake.
If you don’t like one meal, there is always another ready to seduce you. I realized this my last day on board, when there were no distracting ports of call. Instead there was a 9:30 cooking class (“Passion for Pasta”), an 11:15 demo with Senior Executive Chef Alexis Quaretti, a new hamburger special at the Waves Grill, a 1:30 wine tasting with the sommelier team, a high tea featuring crab finger sandwich and a supernal pear and marzipan tart, and a pre-dinner martini tasting.
What hadn’t I sampled yet? Jacques Pepin’s own restaurant, though it was fitting that I saved the Parisian bistro, outfitted with damask wallpaper and butter yellow walls, for last. The special that night was a fresh bream picked up at a morning fish market, but it was Pepin’s signature dishes that commanded attention. The duck l’orange alone was the perfect antidote to all those insipid ducks dished up in generic restaurants these days, carved into tasteless, skinless little flaps; Pepin’s version was all crackling golden skin golden drizzled with a dusky, fruity sauce. But it was the crêpes suzette dessert that triggered déjà vu. Where had I seen that fiery act before? I mulled and then remembered. It was years before, sitting at my empty table, watching the flambé flames shoot high, threatening to shower down and set my big head of hair on fire. Maybe the flaming crêpes were the only grace note on that first sailing. But on this one they made for a fittingly exuberant finale.
Raphael Kadushin is senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press. His travel writing appears in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.