Exec Chef Chat… on Oceania Cruise Line’s Impressive Marina Ship

Have you been on a cruise and ever wondered how all of that fine cuisine and afternoon teas are orchestrated? Join Deirdre on just that exploration with an Executive Chef aboard Oceania’s Marina Ship. She will give you a peek behind the kitchen door, and how Chef Alban’s love of cooking was born. She also explores all the 10+ dining venues, specialty restaurants, wine dinner programming and more! 

Grinning waiters giving thumbs up behind a luscious blue martiniMartini Bar Cocktail Tasting aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

Our Baltic cruise began in Stockholm-Sweden, with stops in Tallinn-Estonia, St. Petersburg-Russia, Helsinki-Finland, Gdansk-Poland, Berlin-Germany, Copenhagen-Denmark, Oslo-Norway and we disembarked in Southampton-England (just about two hours south west of London). This epic itinerary allowed us to visit two spots that have had on our “bucket list” for some time. A visit to the Hermitage Museum was so impressive. It was magical, historical, and truly epic to see these famous works of art. Most have not been seen outside of this museum. Exploring the wonders of St. Petersburg, Russia was a real treat. And on the back-end of our sojourn, to visit Stonehenge (just outside of Southampton) was equally impressive. It was a fabulous trip and we enjoyed exploring all of it with our good friends from Southern California.

Chef Alban & friend Karen during interview So much of my research and writings revolve around food. I love to cook, have an instant affinity for a chef’s passion and early beginnings and I am rather intrigued by the inner-workings of a ship! How do the Harbor Pilot’s get on and off the ship? In what ports-of-call will the kitchen be picking up fresh provisions? How on earth do they serve so many people in this myriad of different venues morning, noon and night?

I was honored to arrange a brief interview with the Executive Chef and learn more about his world on-board the Marina cruise ship. I am very respectful of their time and set my alarm for 15 minutes. I do not take more of their time. Meet Senior Executive Chef Alban Gjoka. He has been with Oceania Cruise Lines for about twelve years. He is one of three Senior Executive Chefs in the Company and together as a Corporate Team they collaborate on: staffing, overall menus, procurement, trends, seasonal produce, new offerings, special events, reading through the comment cards, chatting with passengers, and so forth.

His responsibilities on-board are rather daunting, yet he approaches it with such a calm demeanor. I assume you have to be wired like that to take on this level of responsibility.

Smiling server offering a tray of appetizersAppetizers at the Captain's Welcome Reception aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

Close your eyes and try to imagine this---between guests and the crew there is a total of approximately 2,000 passengers. So, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, that is 6,000 meals a day! In terms of venues, well, that is equally daunting. There are 10 various restaurants or outlets, including a behind-the-scenes cafeteria for the crew. Not to mention the special events such as: the Captain's Cocktail Reception, the Oceania Member-Only Reception, private parties & celebrations, and at least four multi-course wine dinners. (OK, I will never complain about doing my minuscule Thanksgiving Dinner for 12 ever again!)

We met at 5:00pm on the fourth day of our cruise to chat in an alcove of the lobby. I set my timer… as I am very respectful of his precious time. I have interviewed probably 50 chefs in my day, but as we sat down I was instantly so impressed by his calm style and willingness to "be here now." That is so rare, but what sets the stage for such success is meeting him “outside” of the kitchen environment.

So guess what happens next? He informs me that at 5:30pm he will be racing off. Each evening the Chef saunters from kitchen to kitchen grabbing a spoon and testing sauces, entrees, and appetizers. He is tasting to make sure everything meets his level of perfection. If something is not to his standards, they start over but luckily that does not happen often. Between the detailed recipes, menus, pictures of plating and years on the line, the do-overs are a rarity. So while I am sipping on Champagne, applying my makeup for dinner, and slipping into my “little black dress” this is what is going on below-deck. I am so impressed, and honored---all at the same time. The cuisine shines with his impressive attention to these details each and every day.
 Round linen covered table serving an array of appetizers for afternoon teaAfternoon Tea aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

This wonder-kin has spent 24 years in the kitchen. But this all began many years ago in Italy. He grew up in Lago de Lombardia (between Verona and Milano). His home town is located in northwestern Italy bound on the north by Switzerland, on the east by Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto (Venice), on the south by Emilia-Romagna and on the west by Piedmont. This area is famous for its olive oil and sparkling wines.

At home in his youth, Sundays were all about family and that meant 40-60 people together for Sunday lunch. Alban's Grandmother and Grandfather would cook all the food and everyone enjoyed their cuisine and family-time together. After their passing, his Mother tried to continue the tradition, but it was not as successful. The lunches dwindled and that is when Alban stepped in. Even though he was only the tender age of ten years old, he was motivated to return the family unity. He knew that delicious, yet simple food was the foundation of family and friends. Meeting around the table was essential and luckily he was able to turn this tradition around for his family. Through this process he realized that cooking was a real passion.

"Sharing delicious, yet simple food around a table with family and friends is the best way to connect with others."  – Chef Alban Gjoka

Chef Alban explained to me that emotions are transmitted to your food as you cook it. He feels that if you are happy, the food you create in the kitchen will reflect that. Right as rain Chef!

Two kitchen staff with tall white hats plating meal for wine dinner serviceLa Reserve Wine Dinner plating aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

I was shocked to learn that Chef Alban's team is much larger than the Captain's cadre of navigators and those minding the bridge. Wow, I knew the cuisine was top on MY list, but I had no idea ! On the Marina Ship with up to 1,200 passengers, the Captain has a crew of 110 Navigators and Bridge personnel and the Chef has a crew of 210 in the kitchen. They operate like an army, as described to me----"Discipline and Respect” are the cornerstones of the kitchen decorum. Yes Sir! All the way up the chain of command, cooks have spent 2-3 years at each of the ten levels before attaining the premier job of Executive Chef. This includes: Assistant Chef Cook, Chef de Private, Junior Sous Chef, Sous Chef, Chef de Cuisine and Executive Chef.

The Executive Chef orchestrates so much---from schedules of staff, to menus, planning and procurement, ordering, various seasonal changes, venue changes, and so forth. Unlike a river boat (with 190 passengers or less), the Chef on this cruise liner is not able to shop at local markets. Between various public health guidelines, taxes they would have to pay, and the huge quantities they require…these are all considerations for ordering ahead of time and securing the items in a specific pre-arranged location along each route.

Oceania has managed to facilitate an organized approach for logistics such as this. When the ship needs 10,000 pounds of potatoes for a cruise (and all of a similar size), that takes ordering to a whole new level. Certainly there are specialty items that are in-season locally, such as cherries, on our trip, but for the most part, these purchases are rare.

Inviting basket of fresh sour dough breadJacques Restaurant Signature Bread aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

For domestic United States, Oceania has a procurement center in Miami (near their main office) and in Europe there are various cities for stocking up, such as Barcelona. For our trip they were stocking up prior to departure in Stockholm and stocked up again in Copenhagen. Each route has their key cities for restocking. The freshest produce and largest market is located in Amsterdam.

On this ship they can carry enough food product for 18 days and they work toward a 10-12 day time-frame. On this trip, for example, it will be 8 days between provision replenishment.

The Culinary Department of Oceania has very specific standards for every single item they order. Given the volume purchased, the vendors are careful to accommodate the specifications for beef, potatoes, produce and so forth.

Well dressed wine sommelier offering bottle of wineLa Reserve Wine Dinner aboard Oceania's Marina Ship

Chef Alban Gjoka was so kind to spend time with me and share his background and a little glimpse into how things work in the kitchen on-board the Oceania Marina. Culinary excellence on the high seas! And in just a few months I will be back out there heading to Amsterdam for a Rhine River Cruise. Bon Voyage----here’s a toast to eating well and my many thanks to passionate chefs like Chef Gjoka!

Please enjoy perusing the many dining and culinary venues on-board the ship, as well as a recipe from Red Ginger. This is my “favorite bite” and I worked hard to secure this recipe for us all to enjoy!

The complete article, which includes a recipe for Watermelon & Duck Confit Salad from the Red Ginger Restaurant and a stroll through the many dining experiences aboard Oceania's Marina Ship, first appeared on Tastes & Travel, April 21, 2019. A portion of the article is reprinted here with the author's permission. Images in this post © Deirdre Michalsik. All rights reserved. 

Deirdre Michalski

Deirdre Michalski, Culinary, Lifestyle & Travelista Freelance Writer spent 30 years in marketing, PR and advertising for resorts, spas and restaurants. Now she is a writer and enjoys researching all about food and travel near and far. She explores local restaurants, interviews chef interviews, lifestyle adventures, spas and enjoys discovering intriguing international travel destinations. Especially Bucket List Trips such as Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. Her penchant for the oldest restaurants around the globe sends her to some interesting places to say the least! She writes for her own web site, Tastes and Travel as well as other publications and Conference Bureaus.

Why Join IFWTWA?

"I joined IFWTWA a few years ago and have met so many wonderful members here in So Cal. Writing can be a lonely profession at times, and when we get together for Regional Events, I always learn something new. A cool website to maintain a Media Kit for pitches, how to use video, photo editing, who is going on what trips, and just putting a face to a name are all reasons I enjoy membership. So glad I joined. Looking forward to more Media trips this year and learning about what publications are looking for writers. Score there!" 

-- Deirdre Michalski
Tastes and Travel

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