Oceania Marina cooking classes: All at sea in the kitchen

How did this happen? Here I am chopping up onions, filleting fish and crumbing prawns on my holidays. The swimming pool is calling me through the glass doors, but it might as well be on the moon.

For the next two hours, I am one of 24 students in Oceania Marina's handsome, state-of-the-art Culinary Centre; the first hands-on cooking school established on a cruise liner. Set up under the guidance of legendary chef Jacques Pepin, one of America's leading authorities on French cooking, it adds credence to the reputation of a vessel known as the foodiest boat afloat. 

There are eight restaurants on board, including the wine-focused La Reserve, home to tastings, wine seminars and food-and-wine paired degustation dinners curated by no less than Wine Spectator magazine. And you're not exactly slumming it. Lobster is grilled to order in the casual buffet restaurant, and caviar is listed on the menu in the Grand Dining Room. In the grand tradition of cruising, afternoon tea is served every day (but more importantly, there is an espresso bar for a decent Illy cappuccino).

Decked out in mildly embarrassing chef hats and white aprons, we stand at our gleaming individual marble work stations, each with its own induction cooktop. In front of us is Karlis Celms, an energetic young chef of Swedish and Latvian heritage who could have been separated at birth from Fat Duck maestro Heston Blumenthal. 

Born in Seattle, Celms studied at the California Culinary Academy before moving to Riga in Latvia to open his own restaurant, and to launch Latvia's first food truck. He also initiated local market tours, taking Oceania passengers on culinary discovery tours of the massive Riga fresh food market, where his enthusiasm and expertise caught the eye of the group's executive chef and director of culinary enrichment, Kathryn Kelly. He's now one of a pool of 10 talented chef instructors, and also a marvellous actor, if his cheery optimism in our collective cooking skills is any indication.

Kelly, formerly of the CIA (that would be New York's Culinary Institute of America), has devised a variety of cookery classes and food-driven tours for every cruise. "To taste and cook a culture is to know it," she says. "So we continue to add new topics to keep things fresh." 

There are five different classes on this eight-day cruise, each booked well in advance. "People book the classes, and then they book the cruise," says Celms, laughing. 

As well as hosting intensive sessions on tapas, fish, pasta and regional Italian cooking, he leads a group on a culinary discovery tour of the Atarazanas market in Malaga. After a market breakfast of churros and hot chocolate and a general discussion about Spanish food culture, Celms sends the group off with a few euros each to spend on the local produce – Serrano and Iberico hams, figs, fresh dates, honey almonds, sherry vinegar and salted anchovies. Then everything is taken back to the ship for a 90-minute cooking class and tapas lunch, accompanied by a sherry tasting. "We really explore the food culture of the country we are in," says Celms.

The class I attend is entitled What Mermaids Know, but thankfully, it's more about how to cook fish than it is about how to braid seaweed in your hair and make scallop shell bras.

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Chef Celms is lively, responsive, and razor-sharp on technique. He starts with the basics – how to hold a chef's knife, how to stand while holding it, (right foot back, left foot firmly on the floor); and what to look for in fresh fish ("bright eyes – they should look like they've had three cups of coffee"). 

"As a chef, you don't think about why you do what you are doing," he says. "So when you have to stop and think about your actions and break them down, step by step, to teach someone, you really go back to the core fundamental things."

He sets a cracking pace, first demonstrating each dish then mentoring us as we recreate it, but there's plenty of time for feedback and questions. "In culinary school, I was always called Captain Obvious because I always asked the obvious questions," he says, laughing. "But hey, that's how you learn. In cooking, there are no such things as dumb questions."

Divided into pairs, we make a delicate, citrussy, ceviche; crisp-skinned, pan-seared salmon with a soy glaze, and crunchy, deep-fried prawns crusted in panko crumbs and coconut. Then we get to hang around and taste it all, which, clearly, is the best part.

The seas are smooth today, but Celms says they've had their moments. "Once, we were doing a class called Rock the Wok, and the ship was doing more rocking than the students. Sharp knives, hot woks and heavy swells aren't a great mix, so we stopped right there."

I cook fish a lot at home, but I still learn a thing or two: that if the fish is too cold, the skin won't crisp when you sear it; and that the proteins set at 45C, so the first thing I will do when I get back is buy myself a digital temperature probe. Now, excuse me, but the pool is calling.

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Forthcoming Oceania Marina culinary discovery tours include Canary Island Connoisseur, a 12-day voyage from Barcelona to Barcelona on April 21, 2018; Timeless Beauties, a seven-day voyage from Barcelona to Monte Carlo on May 3, 2018; Northern Interlude, a 20-day voyage from London to Stockholm on May 23; and Timeless Marvels, an 18-day voyage from Lisbon to Venice on June 16, 2018. Cruise packages can include air travel. Phone 1300 355 200; see oceaniacruises.com 

Terry Durack travelled courtesy of Oceania Cruises.

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