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Chef's Special a Special Chef

In our first epistle about the Director of Culinary Enrichment for Oceania Cruises, you discovered how a successful business person could walk away and tackle a lifestyle that's fun. Today you'll learn how and why she spends almost her whole life on cruise ships.

Chef Kathryn Kelly's connection to Oceania is Jacques Pepin, whose signature is on two cruise ships: the two-year-old Marina and the Riviera, which was launched earlier this year.

Having joined the faculty of the Culinary Institute of America, she promised the famous chef that when he presided over Oceania's Bon Appétit Culinary Center on the ships, she would teach in one or the other for two months.

That was more than two years ago. Until then, her connection to cruising was a 21-day trip to South America with her daughter when she graduated from college, and a week in the Mediterranean with her mother, who wanted to see where Princess Grace was buried (Monaco).

Both ships were Oceania.

"A friend said 'You're favorite hotel is the Ritz Carlton, and this is a floating Ritz Carlton," she chuckles.

What turned two months into two years was, simply, Oceania. This is the cruise line that focuses the most on cuisine, and not just in the on-board establishments that serve what cruise executives champion as "gourmet" dishes. Besides the restaurants that bear Pepin's name and menu input, Oceania ships sell space in the Culinary Centers for passengers who want to learn more about cooking.

But there's more to it than that.

"You can say we're going to do Moroccan cooking, and then we go to market in Morocco to buy the ingredients," explains Chef Kelly. "We go to a restaurant in Morocco and then come back and gave a class on the ship. It's a 12-hour tour — market for local produce, favorite place to eat, come back, cooking class. There's no corollary to that."

It's more than a unique shore excursion…it's more like the ultimate cooking experience.

"A brilliant idea," she exclaims, "and guests love it. They're on vacation. A lot of them are experienced travelers and they've been to some of these places four or five times, so for them it's 'show me something new.' They see the world through a culinary lens."

Kelly credits Bob Binder, Vice-Chairman of both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, with the concept.

"This is his dream and his vision," she adds. "I remember once we were in a meeting and we agreed that if Cat Cora is the Godmother [of the Riviera] then Bob Binder is the Godfather of the Culinary Center. I asked the [Center’s] architect if anybody else was doing this and he said no, because it's too expensive. He said in the next five years, we'd still be the only ones doing it. Every idea we've had, Oceania has said 'Let's do it.' I've run two publicly traded companies and I know how difficult it can be to get things done. It takes an enormous financial commitment."

Classes at the Culinary Center last an hour. In them, participants prepare (usually) three dishes at 12 cooking stations for two, under Chef Kelly's good-humored but pointed supervision. Because of the time frame, some raw preparation takes place before the class begins.

Every day she's at sea, Kelly teaches two classes.

"In general, people come in frightened, afraid to pick up a knife," says the Center's Executive Chef. "A woman will drop a man off and say 'Teach him to cook something…anything!' Those are the ones that have such a sense of accomplishment that they wind up taking a second and third class. I'm addicted to it and I want to make sure people learn something."

Meanwhile, back at the CIA, they're investigating if she's ever coming back…

"I don't know," she says. "It's my floating home and I'm having a ball!"

Carnival Ecstasy
5 nights
October 8, 2012
Port Canaveral (return): Half Moon Cay, Nassau, Freeport
Inside: $239
Cost per day: $47

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