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Learning to prepare French cuisine is a snap on a cruise ship. Wine helps

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Noëlle Barille (with headset) coaches students in a French cooking class aboard Regent Seven Seas Explorer, which offers cruisers a variety of classes.
(Rosemary McClure)

I have a kitchen phobia.

Given the choice of chopping an onion or ordering takeout, I’m on the phone in a snap. So I wasn’t happy when a friend signed me up for a culinary arts class on a recent cruise, especially because it was a French cooking course.

Wow. French cuisine. This seemed alarmingly like super-chef territory to me; no place for someone who can’t remember the last time she turned on her stove. I dreamed about sitting on my balcony watching the high seas slide by instead.

But then I walked into an elaborate kitchen classroom and got a panoramic view of the high seas sliding by. Plus a bountiful selection of French wines to drink and lots of shiny equipment to use. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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I was on the 11th deck of the Regent Seven Seas Explorer, a 3-year-old luxe-class ship sailing off Norway on this balmy August day. The Explorer and its sister ship the Splendor are outfitted with a culinary arts kitchen and 18 workstations that include induction cooktops, stainless steel sinks, and a comprehensive collection of spatulas, knives and other cooking essentials, not to mention helpers who chop your ingredients and clean up after you.

The only thing a participant has to do is drink lots of wine while the food is cooking and eat it after it’s done. Not surprisingly, the 2½-hour classes, which cost $89, are hot tickets.

Onboard cooking classes are popular on most cruise ships that offer them. Holland America Line offers live cooking shows, demonstrations and hands-on workshops. For $39, you can enroll in a class in which you’ll learn how to decorate a cake, bake a perfect pie or create your own homemade pasta.

Oceania Cruises, a longtime leader in onboard cooking, has Culinary Centers on its ships Riviera and Marina. Participants learn about regional cuisines and brush up on skills such as barbecuing. They learn from master chefs, who may accompany them on port-stop shopping excursions at local markets. Buy it in the morning; cook it in the afternoon.

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Although hands-on cooking classes aren’t available on most ships, culinary demonstrations have become popular on many lines, including Crystal, Disney, Norwegian, Princess and Seabourn. Some lines, such as Azamara, offer cooking lessons onboard and in port. Most lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, include land-based cooking classes in their excursions.

My Seven Seas Explorer class, with the intimidating name “La Technique Française,” featured chef Noëlle Barille, who has taught cooking-at-sea classes for seven years. “Every day, seven to 10 classes,” she said cheerfully.

“This is about fun, not about being perfect,” she told us. That was good news.

“We’re not going to go super fast like ‘Top Chef.’ We want to enjoy this, not be stressed.”

We drank a little wine for starters, then went to the front of the class en masse to watch Barille demonstrate the first dish, classic mustard vinaigrette with greens. The menu also included steak bistro and dessert crêpes. I couldn’t imagine being able to make the crêpes, but I was game to try.

But first, we were working on the salad dressing. “While whisking the vinegar and mustard vigorously, slowly add the olive oil in a thin, steady stream to form an emulsion,” Barille said, stirring mightily and adding oil drop by drop.

“This is the most important part of the recipe; if you don’t get this right, you’re in trouble,” she said. Barille’s dressing was beginning to cloud, a sure sign she had done it correctly.

We retreated to our mini-kitchens, drank some wine and began to whisk like crazy.

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“I never knew you had to do it this way,” I overheard my friend Wendi saying. “It’s working.”

Mine was working too: The emulsion was clouding, and the dressing was becoming thicker. We dressed the greens and then tasted. Amazing flavor. I drank more wine to celebrate, wondering momentarily if great cooks always drank wine to help them get it right.

Maybe that was what I had been doing wrong all these years.

Or maybe all I need is a couple of helpers who appear miraculously whenever things get a little messy. Plus the wine, of course.


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