It's all very well having a great restaurant meal, but sometimes I wish the chef would slip me the recipes so I could enjoy the same taste at home. That's just the way I feel in Red Ginger, one of the inclusive specialty restaurants on Oceania's suave ship, Marina. Its tom kai gai chicken-and-lemongrass soup and its caramelised tiger prawns have tingled my tastebuds. The chilli-and-lime marinated red snapper almost has me licking the banana leaf in which it's wrapped. My favourite, though, is the summery, cheerful duck-and-watermelon salad. Is there any possible way, I wonder, to the waiter, to bribe the chef for the recipe?
No need, I'm told as I finish my meal with a white tea infused with Japanese pear and an alluring hint of ginger. Red Ginger is so popular with Marina's passengers that the ship runs classes in how to prepare some of its most popular dishes, including its duck and watermelon salad.
I sign up on the spot, and the very next day don't just have a recipe but Oceania's senior chef-instructor, Noelle Barille, correcting my knife grip as I chiffonnade mint and basil, and learn how to achieve the right balance in my favourite salad's dressing of hoisin sauce, honey and lime juice.
"This dish is a great example of layering and balancing flavours," says Barille, who is adept at guiding her students through cooking techniques without pushing them too far. "We want you to learn something, but have fun too. No pressure, you aren't on MasterChef."
No pressure indeed. This is an informative but relaxed experience, accompanied by the buzz of conversation and a glass of wine – plus the occasional rush to the windows to admire the seascapes as we approach the French Polynesian island of Raiatea. There are just 12 workstations (stovetop, sink, chopping space), creating an intimate, friendly and hands-on occasion, in contrast to those large-auditorium cooking lectures I've always found off-putting.
Oceania Cruises sails six luxury ships that have a particular emphasis on gourmet food, inclusive specialty restaurants and culinary-themed shore excursions. Its two 1250-passenger vessels, Marina and Riviera, both have a Culinary Centre offering hands-on cooking classes that differ from cruise to cruise but cover everything from Turkish and Moroccan cuisine to classic seafood, crepe or pasta dishes. Guests are overseen by a professional chef who helps with skills such as emulsifying, grilling or chopping.
"We're always teaching the key elements of technique," Barille explains. "We want you to go home and apply them to other dishes, and become a better cook."
One of the techniques we master for our next course is how to assemble the perfect Vietnamese spring roll. There's an art to soaking the rice papers for just the right time, then quickly packaging up our filling of peanut, pomelo, coconut flakes and herbs. I manage rolls which, if not quite restaurant quality in terms of uniform looks, at least taste the part.
Our final dish is lobster pad thai, one of the most-ordered dishes on the ship. It's a luxury version of the Thai street-food dish of stir-fried noodles. We fry ginger, garlic, scallions and leeks in sequence, pushing them to the side of the wok in order to sear chunks of lobster and scramble eggs. We add our sauce, noodles and bean sprouts and finish with sesame oil, lime wedges and peanuts.
We tuck into our creations afterwards. My tastebuds dance a tango once more. Even more satisfyingly, I tuck the recipe into my suitcase.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Oceania Cruises.
Oceania Cruises' Marina and Riviera each have a Culinary Centre and sail worldwide. Marina is in the Mediterranean in the second half of 2018 before moving to South America in November. In January 2019, Marina will sail several itineraries in French Polynesia before heading north towards New York and back across the Atlantic to Europe for its summer 2019 season. The writer sailed a 10-day Sparkling South Pacific itinerary round-trip from Papeete. From $3450 per person, with a supplement for culinary classes. Phone 1300 355 200. See oceaniacruises.com