What It's Like to Be Head Chef on a Luxury Superyacht
Head chefs with alcoholic problems was a pattern that soon emerged during my time in the kitchen of superyacht. When you’re living and working in such close confines, half the job is getting on with everyone.
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. For this installment, we stepped outside of the restaurant world and on board a luxury superyacht.
A lot of people in the industry don't understand how I got this job. I went from working as a galley hand to head chef of a superyacht in eight months.
Everyone thinks it's ridiculous. You don't tend to work on an 85-metre sailing boat unless you have at least three years experience in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
After I graduated, I went to Antigua to find work on a boat. I went around the bars in the port and picked brains, but eventually I snuck into a cheese- and wine-tasting event for chefs and captains. I'd heard that a superyacht had a vacancy, and introduced myself to the head chef after spotting the boat's name on his shirt.
The next day, he invited me for a walk around the boat. He took a shine to me and I got the job. Starting off as a galley hand, I'd wash pots and dishes and at the most, prep salads for the 13 crew members. I had no involvement with food going out to the charter guests.
The head chef turned out to be a raging alcoholic dickhead. Working for him was tough and taught me you don't have to be one of those angry chefs. Like, it is OK if people want to come to the kitchen fridge and help themselves to a slice of watermelon. When you're living and working in such close confines, 50 percent of the job is getting on with everyone.
Head chefs with alcoholic problems was a pattern that quickly emerged. My next head chef, this lovely big Scottish guy, just stopped getting up for work in the mornings. I ended up cooking for all of the guests and my boss said to me, "See how you do in charge for the rest of this charter." That's when I went from a galley hand to feeding guests who were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. No pressure.
Head chefs with alcoholic problems was a pattern that quickly emerged. My second head chef, this lovely big Scottish guy, just stopped getting up for work in the mornings. I ended up cooking for all of the guests.
Like most superyachts, we spend winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean. We'll either be on charter, with American businessmen and their families renting the boat for weeks at a time, or the owner and his wife will be on board. When it's just the owners, we anchor in quiet spots away from the main yachting ports in these beautiful bays without any houses or anything.
Being in these quieter anchorages makes it harder to get food. One of the challenges is keeping enough produce on board for a constantly hungry, hardworking crew. Big boats use agents based in the ports to fly in a ton of ingredients but because we have a smaller crew, my captain expects me to go. Sometimes the closest place is a small shop, with little besides a couple of moldy bits of ginger and some plantain. In those moments I'm like, Fuck! But that's the way my owners want to go yachting—like they're "backpacking" in the most luxury setting.
Storage is another issue. The boat is a classic replica of a racing boat so finding space is phenomenally difficult. I'm used to having to store my flour and my cleaning products in the bilge—you end up just finding any place to store your stuff.
I get a buzz when we're on a charter, but it's intense and takes its toll. I might leave the boat once every ten days and join the crew for drinks in the main port if I can finish dinner service in good time. Otherwise, it's no looking at my phone, no sending emails. No masturbation, nothing. It's 100-percent work when the guests are onboard.
I wake at 7 AM. First thing I do is press fresh orange and prepare charcuterie and a fruit platter for the guests. Next, it's breakfast orders—usually eggs.
For me, it's heaven when the fishermen come up to the boat and sell me incredible fresh fish. That gives me energy—the produce I have access to makes everything worth it.
Often I need to be off the boat buying new produce for lunch. The idea of dropping into a market sounds wonderful, but when you're rushing, it's horrible. You're trying to get receipts from everyone, and no one does receipts. There'll be these big Caribbean women selling me 50 bananas, just having none of it and I can't contend.
After lunch, I'll be thinking ahead to tomorrow. Marinating the chicken, checking the salted caramel ice cream (if the owner's wife hasn't eaten it all). Then I'll take a two-hour break, swim out naked or watch Game of Thrones—any rubbish TV to rest my head. By 5 PM I'm knackered, on my sixth espresso, with the Stone Roses on my speakers, just getting through the dinner service.
For me, it's heaven when the fishermen come up to the boat and sell me incredible fresh fish, say, a ten-kilogram grouper. That gives me energy—the produce I have access to makes everything worth it. On a recent trip to the market I came back to the boat with all this fruit I'd never find in a supermarket back at home. Stalls selling Christophine, small baby bananas, and massive pomelos, which are like savoury grapefruit.
When you've got access to this unusual produce you've got to know how to put it together. The dishes I like to make are simple—I don't want to molest good ingredients. In a market in Montenegro, I found porcini mushrooms the size of my hands and wild blueberries, and cooked them up with thyme and carpaccio. Sometimes the guests just wheeze with pleasure like, Chef, come up here after, let's have a drink! That's what cooking on a yacht should be about and that's what guests want to see.
Having said that, there's definitely still a decadent culture on yachts of flying ingredients in from far-flung places. The Russians still do it. Even when they're in the Caribbean with the best fresh seafood on offer, they'll fly in cod from the North Sea, or lobsters from Maine. I'm lucky enough to work for a couple that would sack me if I did that.
One of my best food moments was on Skiros, Greece, when I cooked a suckling pig on the beach. I spent 12 hours lying next to the fire just manually turning the pig on the spit with one hand, and a beer in the other. By the end of the day, I looked like the pig—tits wet with beer! That was fantastic.
I'm learning all the time. My boss sent me on a cooking course in Thailand, and when it's off-season, he's got me working in his Michelin-starred restaurant. It can be decadent but it's also a lot of hard work. There are months of just working away, sometimes feeling disconnected from friends back home, and accruing wages for when you have a chance to spend them. But I'm also in the position to make decisions off the cuff to fly home and cook a massive crab dinner for 40 friends, or go to New Orleans for a food reccy.
I earn €4K a month, and work nine months a year. I get tips on top of that, like recently when a businessman and his family who flew in and out from London on a private jet tipped me €1000 for ten days. That's not even that much in this game. But all in all, it's more money than I think I will ever earn.
That said, I know a guy who's a world-class chef working for a Norwegian owner, earning over €100,000 a year and he's only cooking for 2 months. We'll see.
As told to Stevie Mackenzie-Smith.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.