President Bob Binder just completed his first class at Marina’s Bon Appétit Culinary Center, the first culinary studio at sea where participants have individual work stations for hands-on learning. “I’ve been closely involved with Oceania Cruises’ culinary program for years,” he said, “but I still learned so much in this class. And it was great fun too.”
As Blogger at Large, I recently enjoyed my first experience at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center as well. It features nine fully equipped cooking stations, each of which accommodates two guests. Our class was taught by Chef Kathryn Kelly, who was hand-selected by Bon Appétit magazine. The cuisine we would learn to prepare would have a Mediterranean flair with a strong Greek influence plus a touch of Spain.
Chef Kelly began with a lesson on olive oil. “We cook with olive oil,” Chef said, referring to regular refined olive oil. “Ten percent of the olive oil in the world that’s manufactured is extra virgin olive oil…If we cook with extra virgin olive oil, it’s a waste of money. After the smoke point is hit at about 350, the flavors are dispersed in extra virgin olive oil.”
Because of the lower smoke point of extra virgin olive oil, any benefits of its fuller flavors are lost when cooking with it, so it does no more to enhance the food than a regular olive oil. We save our extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salads or eating with bread.
Chef Kelly also shared that olive oil, like wine, takes on the flavors of its terroir. So Sicilian olive oils will be more saline due to the salty air, while olive oils from northern California may have more bay flavor due to the abundance of bay leaves.
This was only the first of so many interesting things we would learn today, and we hadn’t even started to cook! Before beginning, we ensured our mise en place was prepared, meaning all of our ingredients and cooking tools were laid out and organized. You may think that only television chefs use mise en place for the purposes of filming, but Chef Kelly noted that cooking is always more enjoyable if you have everything properly set up and arranged before you start. No searching for ingredients or measuring spoons while your perfectly timed reduction overcooks. Everything is right at hand.
Knife technique is of course of the utmost importance in the kitchen, so Chef Kelly demonstrated the proper way to hold a knife, gripping it at the bolster for best control, similar to the concept of a ship’s ballast – an apt comparison. We could observe everything she was preparing on two large flatscreen monitors.
For our first dish we would make Gazpacho Andaluz, a recipe from Franck Garanger, who is one of the creative minds behind Oceania Cruises’ culinary program.
The gazpacho needed to sit for a bit, so we moved on to the tzatziki, a Greek sauce made with yogurt, cucumber, mint and garlic. This would accompany our entrée of lamb and feta burgers. Chef Kelly began by demonstrating how to create the mint chiffonade, stacking the mint leaves, then rolling them, and then slicing them into very thin ribbons.
“Mint is a very popular ingredient in Mediterranean cooking,” said Chef. “We make couscous, we make pasta…and mint will grow wild in your garden.”
We stirred the mint into our tzatziki and also used it as a garnish. The rule of thumb for garnishes is that they should be edible, and they should be an ingredient in the actual dish, so that the garnish is a complement to both the presentation and the flavors.
When our tzatziki was ready, one member of each team began blending the gazpacho, while the other prepared the Greek salad. Kalamata olives, bell peppers, fresh feta, all of the essential ingredients were included, but most importantly, we prepared Jacques Pépin’s own vinaigrette recipe for our dressing. Chef Kelly let us know that a vinaigrette should always be two parts oil and one part vinegar, then demonstrated the proper way to slowly whisk the oil into the vinegar to create an emulsion.
Now it was time to fire up the grill. To season our lamb, we mixed in a special blend of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, freshly grated nutmeg and sugar. Chef Kelly noted that 75% of our salt intake is from processed foods in which we don’t even taste the salt. Therefore if we eat only whole foods, most of us can salt them as much as we like without consuming excessive amounts of salt .
We also added fresh feta to the lamb. Chef Kelly recommended that we taste the fresh feta first, and I was so glad she did. I hadn’t tasted fresh feta in a long time, and I’d forgotten how it melts in your mouth and then fills it with flavor.
My partner in crime was the delightful Lou Hammond of Lou Hammond & Associates. She and I finished making our burgers and tossed them on our grill along with the pita bread that would sandwich them. Chef Kelly gave last minute instructions.
She mentioned something about ensuring the grill was hot enough, but I thought her tip about sipping wine while cooking was far more important. It’s interesting to see how a good bottle of wine complements the various flavors of your meal, both individually and as they come together. Sipping wine throughout the cooking process can be very helpful when determining the perfect wine to pair with your carefully conceived entrée. Chef Kelly shared with us a splendid Chianti from the Badia a Passignano estate, so I took her at her word and tasted it with the lamb alone, then the tzatziki alone, then the lamb and the tzatziki together, then the…
Et voilà! I think we get a C on presentation, but we were so eager to try the finished product, we didn’t spend much time making it pretty. For the record, Chef Kelly did say that we “eat with our eyes,” and presentation is certainly not something you would find neglected anywhere else on Marina. Nevertheless, we made quick work of devouring our results, and everything was absolutely delicious. We feel Chef Kelly was probably more responsible for our success at this point than we were, but we can’t wait to hone our skills on these recipes by practicing at home!
You can try these recipes yourself, as well as many others taken from the talented chefs of Oceania Cruises. Taste the World: The Food and Flavors of Oceania Cruises will soon be available on amazon.com. While it contains many delicious recipes, it is so much more than a cookbook. There are stunning photos, anecdotes from the chefs, a foreword by Jacques Pépin, and more. It’s a beautiful book, and I can’t wait to try every recipe. Thanks to the brilliant instruction of Chef Kelly, my efforts in the kitchen will hopefully come to success!