Farid Oudir may be the executive chef on one of the more modestly-sized ships at sea, but over the course of a day feeding his passengers, he can still clock 20 kilometres on the pedometer. That's because, as he says, on Oceania Riviera, "every night is lobster night."
The food served on his ship is special enough to warrant calling every night "lobster night" in a metaphoric sense. But it's literally true. While other ships might serve the fanciest of crustaceans on special dress-up dinner nights, on Oceania Riviera, somewhere, in some form, every day on every cruise, lobster will be served in at least one of its seven restaurants, be it barbecued tail on the Waves buffet, or bisque in the Grand Dining Room.
Even more exceptionally, it will be available to order at no extra charge.It's the kind of detail that goes towards Oceania being frequently voted among, if not the best cuisine at sea.
Oceania, owned by NCL, is a high-end cruise offering and while smaller by comparison to many of the parent company's ships, Oceania's are larger than usual for this segment. The O-Class Riviera carries up to 1250 passengers. The size may not appeal to some cruising at the luxury end, preferring the 200- to 300-passenger capacity of the typical vessel in the market.
But what the O-Class might forsake in intimacy or a physical sense of exclusivity, she really does make up for in noshing. Consider that 40 per cent of her space is given over to food and there's a chef/cook to passenger ratio of 1:9, nearly twice as many chefs to passengers than other ships that also pride themselves on cuisine.
The guest's culinary delight may begin with a perfect croissant – made from scratch and fresh daily with real French butter – from the breakfast buffet. But quality control starts months before they even board, with the kitchen and supply team analysing each cruise's demographic.
On ours in the Mediterranean, for instance, there was a huge amount of cheese on offer. But, says French-born Oudir, "That depends on the cruise. The French eat more cheese. More Europeans onboard, more cheese. Some countries don't eat too much cheese – that applies to Asian guests. More Asian guests means more seafood consumed. We have set menus but we know from those menus, some dishes will be more popular than others, depending on the nationalities."
Demographics also play a part in service timing. Unlike some ships that do two sittings in specialty restaurants a night, Oceania Riviera does staggered bookings, just like a restaurant on land would. "Some guests, like Europeans, come late. Americans are early. We know people from the Latin countries are really late eaters. So we adjust."
It's not just the nationality of guests that comes into play as Oudir and his team seek to "find balance in things." Ice-cream, for example, is made from scratch and in different flavours each day (the butter pecan is pretty special). "But the amount made depends on the weather," says Oudir.
With all this to consider, and with a wide variety of outlets, chef's 17 years' experience cooking at sea comes in handy. Despite his seniority, he is hands-on, joining pre-service dish tastings and personally cooking in the Dom Perignon Experience, the only dining onboard that comes at extra charge. At a hefty $US295 a person, it is still value for money, pairing six exquisite courses (we had an edible-gold garnished truffle risotto included) with limited edition Dom Perignon vintages from the 20,000-bottle ship cellar.
Each specialty restaurant, as well as the Grand Dining Room and Waves Grill, has a dedicated galley and its own teams. They have unique cutlery and crockery that cannot be used elsewhere on the ship. Some, such as the flagship French restaurant, Jacques, has its own bread that isn't served elsewhere, bread that is made daily by a team of dedicated bakers.
All menus, too, remain exclusive to their outlets. "Guests in, say Red Ginger may ask for the sea bass to be prepared for them the way it is in Jacques. We always say no," says Oudir. Add a proper espresso bar and a separate bar where juices are prepared fresh to order, and the culinary juggling act intensifies.
There's some serious grunt going on parallel to all that. Running between the galleys, fridges and storerooms is a wide service corridor, nicknamed "the I-95" after the US's main east coast highway – it's that busy. With up to 450 pallets of food loading around every 10 days, the ship's forklift is busy all on its own. There's a bit of science afoot, too, with fridges within fridges, like babushka dolls, set at various temperatures to keep fruit and veg not just fresh, but just right to serve (I was amazed we had raspberries on the breakfast buffets every day between Barcelona and Livorno), and workers in beanies, snow jackets and boots managing them.
Back into the passenger areas through discreet doors, and Riviera's Test Kitchen continues the culinary experience, hosting up to 45 hands-on cooking classes per cruise. Programs are slanted towards the cuisine of the region through which the ship travels and extend to small group market visits with flavours found there central to the onboard creativity.
That's in addition to a host of shore excursions centred around food and wine. On our itinerary, we visited a family winery in Ibiza, another making rosé and cheese in Provence, another owned by Italian tenor Andreas Bocelli's family in Tuscany, and one on the slopes of Etna in Sicily, where we had a long, delicious, blissful lunch under the shade of ancient trees.
Oceania's respect for and celebration of local and family-owned producers and providores means the line gains access to places others might not. And guests are the happy beneficiaries of that.
Foodies should prepare to feast – we suggest you pack your pants with the elasticised waist.
FIVE MORE FOODIE SHIPS
QUEEN MARY 2
In 2020, Cunard hosts its first food festival at sea on the QM2, with Michelin-starred celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr hitting the pans onboard during a seven-day Transatlantic crossing in June. See cunard.com
Renowned for excellent food and great wine selections, dining aboard Azamara is a highlight. Specialty restaurants come at a charge, but there are dining packages available and the eateries are included for suite guests. See azamara.com
EXPLORER OF THE SEAS
Voted as offering the best cuisine among large ships, Explorer of the Seas includes myriad free dining options as well as fun choices at additional cost such as a Ben & Jerry's ice-creamery and Johnny Rockets, an at-sea version of the 1950s-inspired US diner chain. See royalcaribbean.com
Much loved by Australians, this ship offers Le Petit Chef at Qzine, a theatrical experience which sees each dish brought to life on the table with 3D animation. There's also a dedicated sushi restaurant and spa cuisine-oriented Blu, which is included for AquaClass guests. See celebritycruises.com
Boutique luxury line Silversea prides itself on fine dining. Atlantide offers gourmet dishes such as royal crab, blue lobster and verbena infused red snapper along with top-grade steaks cooked to perfection. See silversea.com
Julietta Jameson was a guest of Oceania Cruises.
Etihad Airways has connections via Abu Dhabi between Australia and Barcelona to commence the cruise, and Rome and Australia to return home. See flights.etihad.com
Oceania Cruises' Best of Europe 2020 brochure includes itineraries covering the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Scandinavia and northern Europe. Fares from $3950 a person. See oceaniacruises.com