Onboard Obsession: Scouring Local Markets With a Windstar Cruises Chef

Led by the ship's chefs, passengers comb through markets for culinary goodies to add to onboard menus later that day.
Image may contain Transportation Vehicle Boat Ship and Cruise Ship
Windstar Cruises

Onboard Obsession is a new series that explores the can't-miss highlights of the best-loved cruises—from the shore excursions to book to the spa treatments too relaxing to pass up.

The staccato rhythm of Italian laps at our ears like the waves of the Mediterranean. Amid the crates of silvery anchovies and glistening calamari, we're the only tourists for blocks. Unlike the elderly Sicilian men shuffling into the Trapani fish market for a single filet of the daily catch, our small group is looking to purchase enough seafood to feed an entire cruise ship.

Thankfully, we're with professionals: two of Windstar Cruises’ executive chefs, to be exact. The outing is part of the cruise line’s “Shop with the Chef” excursions that take a dozen or so passengers into port markets to provision the ship’s dining venues with gastronomic finds like local produce, seafood, wine, cheeses, and charcuterie.

After a hiatus during the pandemic, the popular excursion is returning to Windstar’s fleet of six small ships. The cruise line aims to offer at least one Shop with the Chef experience per voyage on all itineraries where these markets are available, with an emphasis on European sailings.

Inside the market, our group begins weaving through the handful of fishmongers’ stalls. Prawns, whole flounder, mackerels, and sardines are all on offer. But our guides are discerning and sidestep the first few crates in search of fresher catch.

Windstar Executive Chef Nilesh Kanuinde, who oversees the onboard cuisine during our sailing of the newly renovated Star Pride, picks up a whole dorado fish and examines its gills. “The most important thing when buying fish is to look for the gills,” he explains. “If they’re nice and red it means the fish was caught early that morning.” Kanuinde estimates that the fish he's holding had been swimming in the nearby sparkling waters of the Mediterranean just a couple of hours ago. The red gills, the fish’s curved, U-shaped body, and shiny scales means it was likely caught that same morning.


Windstar Cruises

Executive Chef Nilesh Kanuinde in the fish market

Windstar Cruises

Once the Windstar chefs finish assessing the fish market’s wares, they opt to carve whopping filets off of a massive, 200-pound swordfish, its watermelon-sized head held in place by a spike reaching toward the market’s ceiling. The team also tells the fishmongers to bag up dozens of the whole dorado and filets of ruby red tuna.

For a cruise ship passenger, shopping at a local market can be one of the most culturally immersive experiences at a port. It's a shortcut to becoming familiar with the region and its people in ways that walking tours or history lessons cannot—learning first-hand about the cuisine that’s native to the region, how residents typically prepare it, and even haggling over prices can leave an impression of a destination more indelible than any souvenir.

Later that night, back on the ship after a long day spent in the sun exploring the medieval city of Erice perched in the hills overlooking Trapani, our group sits down at Candles, a restaurant on board Star Pride. It’s the ship’s outdoor steakhouse, but tonight we’ll be opting for the catch of the day over filet mignon or porterhouses.

When our server brings out the filets of dorado, it's simply prepared—pan-seared and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and served with a wedge of lemon. The rest of our haul is being divvied up between the ship’s four other dining concepts: the swordfish and tuna will be rolled into sushi for the lunch buffet at the Veranda, as well as thrown on the coals at Star Grill as part of the line’s signature BBQ night; the remaining dorado filets are being served in the ship’s main restaurant, Amphora, while the extra goodies that the chefs found on land like local Italian cheeses and wines are offered up at Cuadro 44, Windstar’s excellent tapas-style restaurant.

As we’re digging into the fresh, meaty, and briny dorado, a full moon the color of a Sicilian blood orange starts to rise over the sea. Several passengers on the deck of the restaurant hold their phones up to it in an attempt to capture the glowing orb over the gentle water. I, however, remain seated, nibbling at the filet and savoring my wine, content to rely on my five senses to imprint this moment in my mind for a lifetime.