|The Bon Appétit Culinary Center on Oceania's new ships delivers a cooking experience no other line can match.|
I am aboard the brand new Riviera cruise ship from Oceania Cruises. While the Oceania name has long been known for some of the finest cuisine at sea through its professional relationship with iconic French chef Jacques Pepin, the two newest ships from the line, Marina (launched in 2010) and now Riviera, bring an even deeper connection to fine dining by offering classes to educate the guests on the essential elements of fine cuisine; the ingredients, preparation and presentation.
This has been accomplished by another relationship of culinary distinction, one with Bon Appétit Magazine to lend its name to the culinary classroom onboard the ship. The Bon Appétit Culinary Center is a place for guests to receive authentic cooking lessons from some of the best chefs at sea. This ship, and her sister Marina, are the first two cruise ships to ever have a culinary center where the students are provided with all of the elements needed for actual hands-on cooking lessons at sea.
Yes, plenty of ships have cooking demonstrations with a "mock kitchen" to roll out on stage so overhead video cameras can give bird's eye view of a chef in action. But watching a talking chef roll out his dough is not the same as a real lesson where the passengers "get their hands wet" and actually also create the dishes from scratch at the same ime as the instructor.
The Bon Appétit Culinary Center provides the bowls, the heating elements, the sinks, the knives, cutting boards, cheese graters and even the eggs, flour, sugar, cheese, shallots, baking soda and other things necessary to culinary magic. I just took my first cooking lesson on the brand new Riviera - and to my mind there is nothing equal to this at sea - except the same culinary center on Marina, of course.
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The Cooking Class
The 20 or so patrons in my class were each instructed to wash our hands first and then given aprons. Then we were paired up and placed in front of our respective "kitchen-workspaces." Our chef instructor was Katherine Kelly, who has been a chef with Oceania for many years, but she also has a degree in medicine with a focus on nutrition. Kathleen was assisted by three very able chefs from the ship, one of whom who has trained underAlain Ducasse, one of the most Michelin-starred chefs in the world.
For the benefit of the many patrons on this first cruise aboard Riviera we were given a free class condensed into 45 minutes, while a regular class on "regular" passenger cruises will be two hours long and require reservations. We were taking what is known as the "brunch class" and although it was only 45 minutes we still managed to make three complete dishes from scratch: scones, a frittata and poached eggs.
Without going through the entire demonstration, which was thoroughly fun yet also no nonsense or coddling, I will just tell you some of the tricks I learned. My point is this - you can watch all the cooking you want on television or in demonstrations on other ships, but nothing is better for retaining knowledge than actually performing these recipes.
The Bon Appétit Culinary Center
Here is what we found at our workstations; flour, eggs, salt and pepper, olive oil, bread, parmesan cheese, a shallot and butter. There was also jelly and clotted cream to enjoy with the scones we were about to create. Our workstation included a two-element induction heater - similar to "heating coils" but these are actully very expensive ($1000+ per element) "stoves" that cook food with magnetic energy. The steel pan must be in contact with the surface, and although you cannot feel the heat by placing your hand over the unit, the steel pan warms the food through magnetic energy when it makes contact with the unit. These induction cookers are very common on sea-going vessels since open flames are dangerous at sea.
Our first lesson was scones - and I had no idea how simple it is to crete these delicious little goodies. But as I said, I am not here to teach you how to cook, I just want to convey the advantages of a hands-on lesson.
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Lesson Number One: All About Eggs!
The size difference between a regular and an extra large egg can be 100% - which can make a big difference in your recipe. Just so you know; the standard size of reference for "an egg" in a recipe is "large." If you have anything else you can adjust accordingly.
Next egg-fact; always keep your eggs in their cartons in the fridge until you are ready to use them, then bring them to room temperature before cooking. Why? An egg has 70,000 pores in its shell and will actually absorb odors more efficiently than baking soda. But if you plan to eat the egg that is not a good thing, so take care in how you treat your eggs and use fresh ones whenever possible.
Buying eggs - the taste of an egg is dictated by what the chicken has in its diet. The best tasting eggs come from younger chickens that are fed organic food and no meat products. These eggs generally come from organic farms. By the way, while a free-range chicken is delicious for eating, that is not the exactly the same thing as providing the best the diet for the egg layers, but it is a good start. Does the color of the egg matter (white or brown)? - No, color varies by breed, but either one can be as good as the other.
Butter and Olive Oil
When cooking always use unsalted butter, so you can control the amount of salt in your food. When it comes to salt, use sea salt, not iodized salt which has a different flavor. The finest sea salt is said to come from France because of its texture - large chunks similar to rock salt, but from the sea.
Olive oil is essential to fine cuisine, but if you are cooking with the oil there is no reason to use extra virgin oil, which has been extracted by a centifuge process where even the friction must be controlled so the temperature of the oil never goes above 90-degrees. Temperature changes the chemicl chracteristics of vegetable oils, and if olive oil goes higherthan just 90-degrees it is no longer extra-virgin. Therefore, you can cook with regular olive oil (not extra virgin or expellar pressed) with the same results.
Save the extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and other applications, such as drizzling over fine buffalo mozzarella.
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Our frittatas included fresh mint. Storing herbs is also very important. Place freshly picked herbs in paper towels with a bit of water and always use them while still fresh. Do not put them in plastic bags or Saran Wrap where they will either become too moist or dry out.
When making our frittata Chef Kelley reminded us that 90% of the nutrition is in the egg yolk, so while egg whites are fine for low calory dishes, she recommends having at least one yolk for the nutritional benefit. She also cautioned us aganist falling into the the old "it needs more salt" trap. The tongue can taste five different types of flavor; sweet, salty, bitter, acid and something called "umami" which is the tartness of tomatoes and wine. The key to a fine palate is to learn to discern these elements of taste and adjust your recipes accordingly.
Making our Dishes
Our first hands-on task - mixing the batter for scones. The trick is to mix the batter just enough to combine the ingredients but not to over-mix. The butter, flour, salt and one egg yolk should only be slightly mixed to maintain flakiness. You then create a rounded batter cake and cut it into fourths and bake. When these scones came out of the oven I was amazed that they were delicious and could be made in just a few minutes.
The second task, the frittatas were a bit more complicated - something like an omelette with bread, cheese and vegetables added as a layer atop the eggs - not mixed in. Also delicious.
Finally, we learned how to poach an egg in a simple pan of boiling water. The key is to heat the water to a boil (212-degrees) and then back it off to 190-degrees. A rolling boil will break your egg yolk. Add vinegar to the water, about 1/3 cup to each gallon, proportionately.
Drop the egg into the water and let it cook three to four minutes. You can swirl the water first for a visual effect in the final product, or alternatively cut off the excess when you are finished. An egg should be poached from just above raw to medium, not well-done, to lend the most flavor. Remember to always start with your eggs at room temperture.
I learned a dozen things I never knew about simple ingredients in just one short 45-minute lesson - and it is amazing how much I retained. The point is that while I have watched many cooking demonstrations on other ships, I have never walked away from one with so much knowledge I will probably retain forever. That is the difference between a cooking demonstration and a real lesson.
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