Cook on a cruise? You must be crazy!
One of the attractions of cruising is that someone else is always available to cook you food (and clean up afterward). Yet, the popularity of TV shows like "Iron Chef," "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" have inspired many people to view cooking as fun and as a challenge. Cruise lines, in turn, are giving passengers an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen, learning techniques, tools, tips and local flavors (literally and metaphorically).
Instructors come from several places. They may be one of the ship's onboard chefs or guest chefs like Crystal's Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa. Some hail from gastronomic partnerships, such as Silversea's high-profile connection with Relais & Chateaux and Holland America Line's association with the famed Le Cirque brand. Many passengers simply stumble upon these activities while looking for a fun sea-day activity; others book specifically for the culinary opportunities. Food-focused theme cruises are becoming popular, with passengers signing on for the sole purpose of cooking with a culinary star. On one cruise, Paula Dean had her own ecstatic tribe aboard; a "Top Chef" cruise was also very popular.
From lecture-style cooking demos in state-of-the-art theatrical venues and hands-on classes in actual kitchens to food-themed shore excursions and full culinary voyages, cruise lines are letting passengers don aprons and toques and get to work -- and the passengers are eating it up. Here's a sampling of the ways in which top cruise lines encourage passengers to participate in the art of cuisine.
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Carnival offers a variety of hands-on cooking classes, from traditional Italian dinners in Tuscany to perfecting the art of salsa in Mexico, which all end in devouring the results of your lesson. All of Carnival's classes are conducted in port, via excursions like the "Mexican Cuisine Cooking & Tasting" tour that welcomes those who are ages 14 and older.
Celebrity Cruises offers several demonstrations while onboard. The most popular is the Star Chefs Cooking Competition, where passengers can watch the ship's chefs compete daily by out-cooking each other with the variety and complexity of their dishes, given dramatic rendering in a theater setting. Other, more interactive classes include Mixology 101, a surefire way to learn to mix the perfect martini. There's also a class on food and wine pairings.
Demo experiences on the ships are complemented by more than 60 different options in culinary-themed land excursions. One of the more unique offerings includes a cooking demonstration in Africa that focuses on the preparation and ingredients used in the region. Back onboard, look for Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa to make appearances and lead demos. (The two Crystal ships -- Serenity and Symphony -- carry his Silk Road branded restaurant.)
Although Disney Cruise Line offers complimentary onboard cooking classes that are included in the cruise fare, the real time and effort is put into the cooking experiences offered during port excursions. Several stops on the ships' itineraries offer immersive and culturally relevant cooking demonstrations for a very reasonable cost. Some options offered include authentic Italian pizza-making under the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, a hands-on Criollo cooking demonstration in San Juan, and a Greek culinary class in Athens, near the Acropolis.
Holland America Line
All cooking classes on Holland America cruises are held in the state-of-the-art Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine magazine -- a demonstration theater designed specifically for passengers to learn tricks of the trade from master chefs. Cooking enthusiasts can sit in auditorium-style seats and observe from afar with the aid of plasma screens. Occasionally, these classes are specifically itinerary themed, allowing passengers to learn how to make the perfect Jamaican jerk while in the Caribbean or the secret to concocting pesto in the Mediterranean. All of Holland America's cruises feature one-hour complimentary demos, as well as private cooking classes with the chef for $29 per person. In addition, Holland America has recruited a robust lineup of guest chefs to appear onboard to star in cooking demos, and staffers hold court at other culinary events, including wine and chocolate tastings. Members of the line's Culinary Council (David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson, etc.) have been known to show up and start cooking, and the line offers classes in connection with "An Evening at Le Cirque," the onboard fine-dining event in partnership with New York City's Le Cirque restaurant.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian offers a variety of hands-on cooking demos during land excursions. They also offer complimentary cooking demos onboard for leisure travelers and those attending special corporate events. Most exciting of all, the cruise line has partnered with Geoffrey Zakarian, star of "Iron Chef" and "Chopped," to open Ocean Blue, a specialty restaurant onboard the New York City-based Norwegian Breakaway. On select voyages, passengers will be offered the chance to observe demos and participate in small, specialized classes with Zakarian.
For passengers looking to refine their culinary knowledge, Oceania Cruises offers hands-on classes at the onboard Culinary Center, which features 12 individual cooking stations. Passengers can learn basic cooking techniques and attend culturally inspired lessons pertaining to nearby ports. Classes are priced at $69 each, but the individual attention received is well worth the price of admission.
As part of the Princess ScholarShip@Sea Program, Princess has in place one of the most hands-on approaches to onboard cooking demonstrations. Offered under the banner of daytime activities onboard, these events bring passengers into the ship's galley, where the chefs reveal their favorite recipes. (Participants can even take them home.) Also available is a special interactive dinner with the chef, in which attendees watch and learn as staff prepare dinner right before their eyes -- before moving from the galley to a celebratory consumption of the meal. For some activities, onboard charges apply.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
RSSC offers an expensive, luxury option for a cooking class. On the line's themed Spotlight cruises, passengers can sign up for a personalized culinary master class for $500. Participants travel with the chef to the market as he shops for the ingredients to be used in the lesson. After shopping, there are three options for interactive workshops, all followed by a special chef's dinner.
On Royal Caribbean, passengers have access to an immersive cooking experience through the line's ChefMakers Cooking Academy. For an additional fee, ranging from $40 to $80, passengers can watch master chefs in the galley of the ship as they prepare meals and explain various cooking techniques that are taught in professional culinary institutes. Participants command their own stainless steel workspaces as they chop and stir in the ship's kitchen, side-by-side with professional chefs. Classes are offered for kids, too. Pre-boarding reservations are recommended.
Seabourn, a luxury cruise line, offers complimentary cooking demonstrations led by Executive Chef Andrew Soddy, performed in a theater-type setting. Watch Soddy prepare his butter-poached halibut with clams and mussels, or whip up an array of desserts, from his popular lemon tart to caramel-accented dishes.
Luxury line Silversea is a leader in foodie cruising, due to its Cooking School Voyages. On these, Silversea passengers can experience the first Relais & Chateaux L'Ecole des Chefs cooking school at sea. A broad curriculum of culinary events has been designed exclusively for Silversea by the gastronomically renowned hotel brand. Witness R&C's culinary vision and creativity up close with an array of cooking classes hosted by Silversea's culinary trainer, Chef David Bilsland. Regular culinary demos are available on all Silversea cruises.
--by Drew Limsky, Cruise Critic contributor