Oceania has long been known as a pre-eminent cruise line for foodies, given its association with a legendary French chef. But how is it striking the balance between tradition and novelty in an age of changing guest preferences? Abi Millar finds out.

When La Cuisine Bourgeoise by Jacques Pépin, a sevencourse menu, debuted on Oceania’s Riviera and Marina ships last August, the cruise line dubbed it as an ‘epicurean masterpiece’. The meal comes complete with specially chosen wine pairings, and is served in a private restaurant, La Reserve by Wine Spectator, which admits 24 guests at a time.

While the accompanying hype may raise some eyebrows (Oceania president and CEO Bob Binder has promised the meal will “create memories for a lifetime”), a glance at the menu makes it clear that these are not just empty words.

Food for all tastes

Diners start the night with velouté Reine-Margot, a poultry cream served with vegetable julienne and pistachio diamonds, before moving on to a Maine lobster and cheese soufflé, and then a Dover sole fillet with black truffles and crustacean mousse. As the evening wears on, guests progress to roasted beef tenderloin, nut-crusted Brie de Meaux and an omelette Siberienne – a type of baked Alaska – leaving just enough room for petits fours and Parisian-style pink praline cream puffs. Each course is served from a silver tray, as per mid-20th century fine dining. The menu has been designed to turn eating food into an experience, perhaps a performance, rather than a way to sate one’s hunger.

“Oceania Cruises is all about feeling and emotion, so I am especially pleased with what Jacques has created with La Cuisine Bourgeoise. Imagine being transported back to the halcyon days of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, enjoying a celebratory meal with great friends. It is the epitome of special,” explained Binder in a press release.

As executive culinary director of Oceania Cruises, Pépin has always placed his stamp on the fleet, lending his name to Jacques, a speciality restaurant on board the Marina and Riviera, as well as the Jacques Bistro on the newest ship, Sirena. Fans can book a ten-day ‘Jacques Pépin Cruise’, in which they are treated to specially designed menus and cooking demos. And his efforts have been acknowledged with a string of culinary awards.

However, it is with La Cuisine Bourgeoise that Pépin comes full circle, bringing the influences of his early life to bear on Oceania’s offerings. Each course is based loosely on the food of his youth, which harks back to a long lineage of French cuisine. The menu, full of emotional resonance, wouldn’t look out of place in a Proust novel. In a press release, Pépin said, “Cuisine bourgeoise is rooted in tradition and is one that shaped my childhood. It is a cuisine to savour rather than admire or evaluate, it is simply happiness on a plate, and I am thrilled to share this with our guests.”

Cuisine bourgeoise is rooted in tradition and is one that shaped my childhood. It is a cuisine to savour rather than admire or evaluate. – Jacques Pépin, Oceania Cruises

While La Cuisine Bourgeoise comes with a surcharge, the majority of Oceania’s food offerings are included within the price. In fact, La Reserve is one of just two restaurants, the other being the private dining room Privée, where customers have to reach for their wallets. The others come at no extra cost and offer a varied mix of food. As well as the French food served at Jacques, diners can enjoy authentic Tuscan cuisine at Toscana, Asian fusion classics at Red Ginger, informal American dining at the Terrace Café and silver service in The Grand Dining Room. They can also partake of afternoon tea, complimentary room service, alfresco dining or steak in the Polo Grill. According to the website Culinary Chatter, Oceania’s food spend per passenger is four times that of Princess, P&O, Celebrity and Cunard, and double that of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. On top of this, Marina and Riviera have the highest ratio of galley square footage to passengers in the entire industry, underscoring the importance they give to their restaurants. These statistics are fitting for a cruise line that claims to offer ‘the finest cuisine at sea’.

Culinary trendsetter

So what lies behind Oceania’s positioning as the foodie cruise line? To answer this question, we should go back to 2002, when Binder, founding chairman Joe Watters and Frank del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, set out to develop an upper premium cruise line. Not only would this line be destination intensive, warranting a high-end price tag, but the ships would have the feel of luxury hotels.

At the time, the cruise industry was in a state of transition. The sector was growing fast, new-build ships were larger than ever and the average passenger age was plummeting, going from 65 in 1995 to 45 by 2006. As cruising lost its reputation as a sedate activity for the elderly, ships added a host of on-board amenities to lure a different demographic.

Take Carnival’s Conquest class that launched between 2002 and 2007. Each ship hosts almost 3,000 passengers and, prior to their ‘Fun Ship 2.0’ refurbishment, prioritised family friendly features and entertainment.

Oceania, then, would be something different, cornering the more luxury -oriented slice of the market. By beginning with three relatively small vessels, Regatta, Insignia and Nautica, the company made its focus clear from the outset: ‘a truly refined and casually elegant travel experience’.

Guests will definitely find no giant LED screens or rock-climbing walls on board. To that end, Oceania instigated its Jacques Pépin-inspired gourmet culinary programme. While celebrity chefs on cruise ships are now an industry-wide phenomenon, this was not the case in 2002. Along with Michel Roux on Celebrity Cruises and Nobu Matsuhisa on Crystal Cruises, the Pépin-Oceania partnership was one of the first of its kind.

Pépin has had a long and storied career. Born near Lyon, France, in 1935, he worked at his parents’ restaurant before training at the Plaza Athénée. He went on to become the personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, and moved to the US in 1959, where he wrote more than 20 cookbooks, worked in a wide range of restaurants and went on to star in multiple TV shows (some of them with Julia Child, his long-time friend and collaborator).

Despite his fame across the Atlantic, Pépin’s style of cooking has never deviated too far from its Gallic roots – albeit with some international flourishes. It’s a form of cuisine that suits the Oceania ethos: fresh, highquality and flavoursome, without being fussy or pretentious.

We are delighted to expand our culinary offerings to please an even wider array of palates, and offer our guests more diverse choices to suit today’s wellness-focused lifestyles. – Bob Binder, Oceania Cruises

His association with Oceania has only deepened over the years. In 2010, he was made honorary commodore of the fleet, and his daughter, the cookbook author Claudine Pépin, is godmother of the Sirena. Today, he presides over an impressive team, including culinary director Franck Garanger and Kathryn Kelly, executive chef and director of culinary enrichment.

Increasing choices for health-conscious guests

Although the ships still emphasise fine dining, their focus has changed somewhat since the early days. In keeping with shifting guest tastes, there are plenty of options today for health-conscious passengers as well as wine-quaffing gourmands. Take the decision to roll out vegan menus, which was announced in April last year. These new offerings provide the most expansive vegan range at sea and are available across all six ships, including the likes of vegan tortilla Española and chocolate vegan-ricotta pie. The Riviera and Marina also boast new juice and smoothie bars. “We are delighted to expand our culinary offerings to please an even wider array of palates, and offer our guests more diverse choices to suit today’s wellness-focused lifestyles,” said Binder in a press release. “Whether guests are looking for a healthy and invigorating start to their day or a refreshing and rejuvenating mid-day pick-up, the raw juice and smoothie bar has something to delight every palate.”

The food offerings have also evolved in accordance with Oceania’s growing list of destinations; for example, each of Marina’s voyages to Cuba feature Cuban-inspired menus. These include generations-old family recipes from Cuban members of the team. Another change is the heightened focus on passenger participation. Since 2011, the on-board Culinary Center has offered hands-on cooking classes in state-of-the-art teaching kitchens. These classes teach everything from knife skills to ‘Floribbean’ fusion cuisine.

Kelly, who designs the curriculum, has also brought in a series of landbased Culinary Discovery Tours, which take place at select destinations. Guests accompany the instructors to farmers’ markets, where they shop for fresh ingredients and experience the local food culture for themselves.

“We try to connect our guests with where we are traveling,” Kelly told Forbes. “So we get off the ship and we go to markets, we go to restaurants and we go to food manufacturers – anything we think might be really special and intimate.”

From Oceania’s side, it’s really about striking a balance between what has worked in the past and what guests are looking for today. This means providing something for everyone, be it a seven-course extravaganza or something light and healthy.

It’s a strategy that’s working out for the cruise line, with many passengers citing the food as their reason for picking Oceania. To use a cliché, the proof of its success is in the pudding.