Oceania Cruises invited me to a exclusive event last evening at the French Culinary Institute in New York City where they announced another great feature for their new ship, Oceania Marina: a Jacques Pepin French Bistro style restaurant aptly named “Jacques“.
I have met Jacques Pepin a number of times…not because I am anyone special, but because he is so approachable. Last night, while waiting for the official announcement, I recounted with him some amusing moments some years ago at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival which he attends almost annually. He introduced his wife and spoke of his daughter. And briefly chatted about his working on the menu for the about to be announced restaurant.
After chatting with him I thought about my chat with Charley Palmer on the Seabourn Odyssey Inaugural Cruise less than a month ago. First I thought about how lucky I am, and how cool it was, to briefly chat with two remarkable chefs and to do it in such a short span of time. But then I thought about how these two men were similar in many respects, but also so different. Charley Palmer is a guy I could easily see sitting down with a glass of whiskey and talking about anything in a “manly” way. Jacques Pepin comes across more as your favorite uncle who you just can’t wait to be invited over to his home for a family dinner with wonderfully simple, but elegant, food, wine and conversation.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Frank Del Rio, Chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings (owner of Oceania Cruises). He was warm, caring, proud and enthusiastic. We had a bit of a chat about both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas wherein I explained my confidence in the Oceania product, but my concerns with Regent. Unlike you might expect, he was not defensive, but very interested. He brought me over to the wonderfully charming head of Hotel Operations and the three of us had a pleasant, but candid, conversation where each of us learned some things. It was all about making the product the best it can be. (I did tell Mr. Del Rio that I am not a fan of the inclusive tours on Regent as luxury clients tend not to take them, so it was more of a negative than a positive…but that is a discussion for another blog post.) The conversation left me feeling upbeat and enthused.
Bob Binder, President of Oceania Cruises spoke during the formal announcement of Oceania’s commitment to the use of the finest ingredients when making everything from chocolate croissants to its steaks; emphasizing Oceania’s cuisine and its constant development and improvement.
The Marina will also have a very cool 22 station culinary center where, unlike anything else at sea, guests will be able to actually cook either a single lesson or a cruise-long course, rather than simply watching a demonstration. Mr. Binder spoke of going shopping with the chef and bringing local ingredients back to the ship’s culinary center to create, for example, a wonderful pesto. (I think this is a wonderful concept and I am sure there will be very high demand for this. For me it is reason enough to book a cruise on the Marina. Imagine learning the ingredients and techniques necessary to bring the local cuisine home with you…so that you can relive your cruise whenever you step into your home kitchen. Great life experience…and great marketing!)
And that brings me back to Jacques Pepin and his new restaurant. He spoke, as he always does, of Jacques having “honest” food that is simple and prepared properly. As he said in his later cooking demonstration (how many of those has he done in the past 50+ years?!) that the key is not to screw up great ingredients, but rather to touch them the least amount possible.
To me, that is what Oceania is about. While the public spaces are beautiful (though the standard cabins are a bit small) and the itineraries interesting, what makes Oceania a great value and easy to recommend is simple: It is the ingredients.
From Frank Del Rio to the busboy, the buffet to the new Jacques Restaurant, Oceania is all about a very simple concept: High quality ingredients (be it people or food) which are prepared properly (whether in training or in the galley) and which are not screwed up (with faux luxury/pretense or unnecessary complication.)
Note: Oceania has told me there is going to be a BIG surprise on the Marina that will be announced closer to the launch. No one will tell me what it is, but they are very excited about it. With the installation of Canyon Ranch spas on the ships, the Marina Culinary Center and Jacques already announced, it has to be something special. Of course with the launch still more than a year away we are going to have to wait. Such problems!