The Chef Who Created The First Cooking School At Sea

Food & Drink

One of the most popular “destinations” for guests boarding Regent Seven Seas Grandeur is the ship’s Culinary Arts Kitchen.

Grandeur is the sixth and newest vessel in the Regent Seven Seas Cruises fleet, a ship that has raised the bar in terms of spectacular design and luxurious decor. The new ship also builds upon the line’s stellar reputation among food lovers.

When Chef Kathryn Kelly—the conceptual architect of the Culinary Enrichment Program—joined Norwegian Cruise Lines (the parent company of Regent and Oceania Cruises) in 2016, there was no precedent for her role.

Hired as the first director of the program, she came aboard with impressive culinary credentials. An honors graduate and fellow of The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) —one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the U.S.—Chef Kelly completed doctoral studies in epidemiology at the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She was previously a health care executive and also worked with the CIA “Food Enthusiast” program, which offers non-professionals an array of culinary offerings, including boot camps, cooking and wine classes, demos and tastings.

Working for NCL, she etched out two innovative and complementary culinary arts programs at sea, The Culinary Arts Kitchen and Epicurean Explorer Tours, the latter a group of appetizing excursions that can entice any food lover to come onboard.

Chef Kelly now oversees six floating cooking schools at sea—three on Regent and three on Oceania—with a staff of seven chefs, and a host of sous-chefs and other kitchen helpers.

Her work has become a model replicated across the cruise industry.

The Culinary Arts Kitchen

The Culinary Arts Kitchen (on Deck 11 on Grandeur) is a light-filled, airy space with ocean views. Each of 18 cooking stations is outfitted with state-of-the-art, stainless steel kitchen equipment and tools.

Two 90-minute classes, geared to a range of interests and abilities from beginner to experienced chefs, are held each day when the ship is at sea.

On busy port days, when most people are off the ship exploring destinations, classes are scheduled after their return later in the day. Subject to demand, guests can register for an unlimited number of classes on any voyage but the classes are so popular that they are often sold out.

Chef Kelly notes that food and wine travel is in far more demand than it was when her culinary program at sea first took root. Cruisers have always considered the quality of food offerings as an important factor in choosing one line or one ship from another. But now, cruisers are increasingly sophisticated, not only in terms of their palates but also in terms of their desire to learn about people, places and culture through food.

“The Culinary Arts Kitchen has evolved over time by listening to our guests.” she says. “Our guests told us they wanted small group demonstrations in our kitchens, intimate sessions with our chefs, and highly-individualized instruction.” This has led to series of new classes.

Some of the classes at these cooking schools at sea focus on the basics. For example, “On A Plate & In A Glass” explores food and wine pairing from the perspective of a chef who creates dishes to showcase selected wines.

Others, like “Mediterranean Masterpieces,” are tailored to specific itineraries, offering immersive experiences to learn about the unique ingredients, cooking techniques, and iconic dishes that reflect a destination’s culinary heritage.

Of course, guests get to eat (and enjoy) what they cook. All of these experiences are intimate and hands-on, marked by conviviality, with guests taking home new recipes, and new skills and confidence in the kitchen.

Epicurean Explorer Tours

To refine and develop a destination-driven culinary enrichment program ashore, Chef Kelly also counted on the feedback guests on prior cruises.

“They always asked where I went and what I did when we were in port,” she says. “So I said to myself: How can I design a bespoke program that offers guests opportunities to more fully explore the culinary culture of the delicious destinations we visit?”

To achieve that goal, Chef Kelly forged close relationships with local producers, food purveyors, chefs, and restaurateurs to create immersive opportunities for food lovers. On these excursions, always led by chefs, guests visit local markets, tour wineries, dine at gourmet restaurants, and more.

For example, at a “Chef-Led Tequila vs. Mezcal Seminar & Taco Pairing” in Cozumel, Mexico, participants learn how to distinguish the two spirits in terms of their production and flavor profiles while enjoying a tequila pairing with tacos.

In St. Lucia, guests visit the famed Hotel Chocolat to learn about the chocolate making process from bean to bar—followed by a relaxing lunch chosen from the hotel’s local harvest menu.

Food and cruising: A recipe for success

“Culinary programs do sell cruises, as evidenced by the money and talent the cruise lines are investing in these programs,” comments David Yeskel, a journalist who has covered the cruise industry for more than two decades.

“With increasing demand for immersive gastronomic adventures, cruise companies utilize their programs not only to sell cruises but also to distinguish themselves in a highly competitive market,” says Vee Rodriquez, a branding and marketing expert.

A peripatetic chef

It is evident that Chef Kelly enjoys cruising almost as much as she likes to don her apron.

She spends a good part of her year onboard one or another ship traveling around the world with food enthusiasts, and continues to refine culinary programs on both Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises with passion and unbridled energy.

“I love cruising. I pack once and enjoy the trip. It’s the best way to travel,” she says.

What types of “souvenirs” does she tend to slip into her suitcase?

“Olive oil, spices, and specialty foods like sun-dried tomatoes from Santorini and infused salts from Ketchikan,” she says.

Her advice to home chefs: “Prep everything first. Then have a glass of wine. Afterwards, start to cook. The prep is what we call mise en place, the French term for “‘everything in its place.’”

Chef Kelly has found her place, and has created a prototype for food-centric cruising.

On MoreTimeToTravel: Take a peek inside Regent Seven Seas Grandeur (review and photos)

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