The outdoor food market of Nice, France, is not far from the cruise ship docks. Still, it’s easier to find and more fun to navigate if you are following a ship’s chef while he searches for produce for your dinner.
Earlier this year, our small tour group came off the newly refurbished 212-passenger Star Breeze, led by Michael Sabourin, Windstar Cruise’s corporate chef. He had been this way many times before.
“My darling,” said Teresa, a merchant who described herself as the Queen of Strawberries, as she watched Sabourin pick through her berries for dessert on Star Breeze. We all got a ripe, sweet berry to taste, before we moved on to the white asparagus.
The six-ship fleet of Windstar Cruises plans a market tour with the chef on each voyage, part of the trend among top cruise lines to offer experiences with chefs on and off the ship.
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Gone are the days when unknown, unseen cruise ship cooks produced fare from a closed, inhospitable galley. To showcase their chefs and food preparation, modern cruise ships have opened their kitchens and some fascinating procuring of ingredients.
Today’s passengers may meet chefs, learn cooking techniques, dine from fancy tasting menus, and, my favorite, follow a ship’s chef to market at ports around the world.
Joining a cruise ship chef in a foreign market means exploring, even tasting, what may be strange-looking items and delicacies not available at home. It’s a multi-sensory immersive opportunity, a special cruise vacation experience seldom duplicated anywhere else.
Passengers may participate in formulating a menu, choosing ingredients for an evening meal, perhaps cooking, and, of course, eating.
Such opportunities for foodies, both serious and aspirational, are increasing, as cruise lines seek to grab a share of grub trends that have been bolstered by TV cooking shows and local celebrities talking about their kitchens. People who care about cooking and/or eat out regularly at trendy restaurants are among primary marketing targets for top cruise lines, seeking to entice the millions of adults who have yet to try a vacation at sea.
“Usually, there is one chef tour a cruise,” said Sabourin, “but we go to market almost every day that we are in port. Let us know if you want to go with us. We usually arrive early enough to get the fresh fish. You can help carry the bags,” he said, laughing. “Or not. Better yet, hang out with us for a while and then go off on your own.”
Sabourin says Windstar is well aware that food brings people closer, both on the ship as passengers get to know one another during meals, and off the ship at markets. “It’s a great experience for chefs, too,” he said, “when we explore and talk with merchants. We learn from them.”
Other cruise lines are deep into the chef-to-market concept, as well as cooking schools aboard ship. Oceania Cruises, for instance, has built its two newer ships, Marina and Riviera, around cooking and eating, with a culinary center that has 24 cooking stations. Among the most comprehensive cruise line culinary tours ashore, Oceania takes small groups of passengers to a food market, farm or vineyard and then to a shore-side cooking school to learn how to prepare the local ingredients.
Seabourn Cruises offers Shopping with the Chefs. Crystal Cruises has classes, shore excursions and culinary-themed voyages with a guest chef. Celebrity Cruises has new chef-hosted shore excursions to markets. Viking Ocean’s cooking class with the chef includes a market tour and dinner that a small group cooks with the chef in a special room that houses a high dining table as well as participatory stations.
On select cruises, Silversea passengers can book Market to Plate, a tour to shop for ingredients used in regional specialties served aboard ship, with classes onboard or at Relais & Châteaux properties.
Holland America Line has a council of renowned chefs who offer advice and signature recipes served onboard. The line’s theater-style room has cooking classes (including some for kids and teens), wine tastings, and guest celebrity chef demonstrations. Tours to local markets are available in some ports.
If meal ingredients and preparation are high on your list of interests, ask any cruise line about food-related tour and excursion possibilities. Most ships have at least some sort of culinary activity. Some carry an extra fee, as much as $299 per person; some do not.
A tip: Look over your shore excursion possibilities well before your cruise. Some fill quickly, especially culinary tours where cooking is involved, as food stations and equipment are limited.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.