How I became a yacht chef.

Let me tell you about my friend, the bastard. When I refer to him as the bastard, please understand that I use the word with affection and love, as he is a good friend and an all-round stand-up guy. A real gent, a tip-top, bona fide, awesome dude. If I had a child (I won’t), if I had a daughter of age (again Mum, never gonna happen), I would welcome my friend into my home and share a glass of sherry with him before allowing him to take her out for dinner (actually no I wouldn’t, any man who so much as glances at the daughter that I am never going to have had better be able to make like Usain Bolt). But he is a bastard. The bastard. Like one refers to Lebowski as ‘The Dude’, me and my other pals refer to him affectionately as ‘The Bastard’. Sometimes ‘The lucky Bastard’ if we are feeling particularly unkind. Maybe for the benefit of anyone who is reading this blog before the watershed and is horrified that I have turned the air blue with my fruity language, we should use a codename to refer to my friend the bastard. Let me think…what’s a suitable and inoffensive codename to refer to my friend the bastard instead of ‘The bastard’. Lets call him ‘Bob’….’The Bob’…’The Bastard Bob’.

 

Yachting pays well. It pays really well. Really really well. (note to self: link this blog to my match.com profile) And if you manage to build up a good CV, work on a few yachts gradually gaining more and more experience, it pays really really really well. A package for a chef on board a big shiny plastic-fantastic 50 meter motor yacht, if you include all the perks, vehicle when based somewhere, all food, accommodation, all travel expenses, mobile phone paid for, paid leave of maybe 40 days per year with a free return flight home from anywhere in the world and a hefty tax free (sort of) monthly salary would probably be in the same ballpark as that of an executive chef in a London 5* hotel. And in a lot of cases would far exceed that. Then you get the really lucky guys, like my friend The Bob, who work on yachts owned by not just ridiculously wealthy individuals but incredibly ridiculously wealthy individuals. Your Abramovich’s, Paul Allen’s and Sultan Qaboos’s of this world. They will be getting other perks on top of their enormous salaries. The Bob is the chef on board a large yacht owned by a middle eastern gentleman, and when not cooking for the owner, he is regularly flown all over the world to restaurants that the boss likes, to eat there so as to be able to recreate some of the dishes back on the yacht to impress the owners guests. So he has had free travel and the bill picked up by the yacht in such places as El Bulli in Spain, Noma in Copenhagen, the French laundry in California and a host of other world beating restaurants all over the globe. That’s why we call him The Bob. The Bob is also on rotation on full pay so he actually only works half the year doing two months on followed by two months off but still gets a full salary every month. The Bob also has a healthy development budget so when the yacht is on down time, he can fly off to Japan and do an intensive sushi course hosted by the worlds greatest sushi chefs or maybe he’ll pop off to the Napa Valley to learn about Californian wines and spend a few days in Thomas keller’s kitchen. The Bob!

I, on the other hand, have to pay for all that fun stuff myself at the moment, and will soon be spending an absolute fortune eating my way around Tokyo, Thailand, hopefully Spain and a little bit of south America before rejoining my yacht in Panama. I can sense that maybe you have a sudden urge to reach through your computer screen, grab me around the neck and start throttling me while screaming at me “Oh dear! Poor you! Having to spend two months traveling and eating in some of the worlds best restaurants! Diddums!” so I hasten to add that I am in no way complaining about my life at the moment and understand how lucky I am to be able to take that time off and do those things. And also how lucky I am to have even stumbled across this world in which I now live. The world of yachting.

It always surprises me that there are not more professional chefs chasing yacht jobs. But I guess that people don’t really hear about this little niche in the hospitality industry. I only found out about it by chance through a friend I was working with in a French ski resort. I was working in Val D’isere as a chef in one of the hotels there and he advised me that at the end of the season I should forget about going home and just get the train straight down to Antibes on the cote d’azur. I had no idea what to expect. He told me not to worry, just to head down there, get a bed in one of the hostels, sign up to the crewing agencies, drink in the Blue Lady and I’d have a job within a couple of days. That is exactly what I did and he was right, within a couple of days I was getting interviews. After one unsuccessful trial in which I had attempted to cook a ridiculously complicated menu in a teeny tiny galley that also doubled as the crew mess and where the crew were practically sitting on my lap as I attempted to recreate the 37 course El Bulli tasting menu, I decided to change my tactics and simplify. I came up with a menu that I was comfortable cooking and that I new I could find all the ingredients in the local market. I had moved into an apartment with a young lady (what can I say, I work fast) and so we held a dinner party to test the menu. All good. Easy to cook, looked good on the plate and tasted great. So when my next trial came along on a little Sunseeker yacht with 3 crew, I delivered the goods and got the job.

This was back in 2003 and was to be my first summer Mediterranean season onboard a motor yacht. It was a great season. We were 3 crew and my role was not only cooking for the crew and 6 guests but also to do the deck work with the captain and Stewardess. The galley was tiny and completely open to the main saloon. Just one marble worktop and an oven behind me and one large domestic fridge against the wall. Think, Joey and Chandler’s kitchen in Friends but shinier and with a 4 million euro piece of plastic attached to it.

It was hard to adapt to the limited space from having previously been cooking in large hotels and restaurants. Luckily for me we were in ports most of the time rather than at anchor somewhere remote so I could easily walk off the boat and shop every morning. So I did not have to worry about having to cram 3 days worth of food into the fridge to keep us alive and not running out of caviar and unicorn steaks before I could next get to a shop. The owners were Russian but having cooked for a lot of Russians since, I now know that these guys were very easy going by comparison. I learned a huge amount from that season and was very grateful to the captain as I knew it was at times very frustrating for him having to teach me the way to do things on a yacht. Even after that season, I did not consider yachting as a career option really. The money had not been anything spectacular, no more than I could earn at home and sharing the tiniest cabin with the stewardess, captain, washing machine, ironing board and the engine room door did not fill me with joy at the thought of doing another season. I went back to the UK, did some work in London, building my CV and also did a few more seasons in the ski resorts of France, Austria and Canada.

My return to yachting, and the time when I eventually decided to pursue it as a career came some years later and again by chance. I was working again in Val D’isere, this time for a luxury ski company called Scott Dunn cooking for 12 guests in a beautiful chalet.

 

Mine is the one in the middle.

 

I was really enjoying it as this company were operating at the top of the market and catering for some wealthy and demanding guests. As the chef, I had a lot of freedom with the menus I cooked and was also less constrained by budgets (a little bit like on a yacht). One week, the guests that were staying in my chalet happened to be yacht captains with their families and friends. Long story short, well, short story shorter, I cooked, they ate, they liked. A few weeks later I got a call from one of the guests offering me the chance to come and trial for a position. “On your yacht?” I asked. “No, not on our yacht but for the owner of our yacht in one of his properties”. “Okeydokey, where do you want me and when?”. I was told to come down to Antibes and I would be driven to the owner’s villa (one of them) near by and I would be asked to cook for him for a couple of days. Then we would take it from there. Sounded good, I just needed to get the time off from the ski chalet to go down there. They were reluctant to say the least and gave me quite a hard time about wanting to take four days off during the season. At this point I was ready to turn the trial down and stay in the Alps as it was looking like if I decided to go and do the trial then I would have no job to come back to. I had a conversation over the phone with the lady who was setting me up for the trial and explained to her my predicament. She said that she completely understood and that I should not worry too much about it but that she thought that I had a good chance of getting the job as she was unaware of anyone else trialing for it. And with the captain’s recommendation from his stay in my chalet, it was almost a done deal. I was still thinking hard about it when I asked her who it was I would be cooking for. “Oh, sorry yeah, I forgot to say, it’s His Royal Highness The Crown Prince Of somewhere hot and sandy”.“I’ll see you Monday” I said. I told the chalet company that I had to give it a shot, its not every day you get asked to cook for and potentially work for a royal family, so it would be great if after the trial I could come back to work but if you don’t want me back then so be it. They obliged and very kindly sent me off to Antibes with their best wishes.

Upon my arrival, I was met as planned by the captain’s wife, who then drove me up the owner’s villa. The villa was located atop a hill looking out over the sea. Now when I think of a villa, I think of a modest sized house with maybe a pool. Tiled floors, white washed walls, that sort of thing. But I new this guy must have a few quid so I figured its probably going to have maybe a few more bedrooms, maybe some accommodation for the staff in the basement, maybe a bigger pool. Welcome to yachting! This place was enormous.

A huge compound surrounded by miles of perfectly trimmed hedge and topiary. Multiple buildings of stunning beauty that were each the size of small hotels. Several swimming pools and tennis courts from what I could see, as I wasn’t allowed to wander around too much for security reasons. There were security cameras everywhere and I was told that there were heavily armed Ninjas (she may have said guards but a like to think that they were Ninjas as if I was that rich I would have Ninjas protecting me) wandering around and that if the owner’s father was in residence, they basically brought a small army with them (an army of Ninjas).

I was shown to the staff quarters. The staff quarters were like what I was expecting the whole place to be like. A beautiful villa with it’s own driveway, it had an enormous lavishly furnished lounge area and kitchens. The room in which I was staying which would become my residence if I got the job was bigger and more lavishly furnished than any 5* hotel room I have ever stayed in or any suite that I have seen. I have to get this job, I thought to myself.

I had already sent ahead a menu plan that I proposed to cook for the owner, and the owner had chosen which dishes he wanted to try. I figured I would really have to pull out all of the stops to impress this guy. I was told that I would not be required to prepare breakfast as they had it delivered from a nearby 3 Michelin star restaurant every morning…. no pressure then. I started early the next morning at 5am in order to get to grips with a kitchen that I had not yet seen. I have worked in kitchens of varying sizes from small restaurant kitchens catering for 40 or 50 covers to vast kitchens catering for thousands. This kitchen in which I was supposed to be cooking lunch and dinner for two people would not have looked out of place in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental. It was big, really big and was packed with shiny new state of the art industrial equipment. A chef’s Aladdin’s cave. I could have employed ten more cooks and catered for a 200 cover high end restaurant out of this kitchen. It felt weird just me rattling around in that kitchen just knocking together lunch for two. They had even provided me with a commis chef to do any prep I needed. It was nuts. A ridiculous package on offer to cook for two people, husband and wife, the occasional lunch and dinner as they would be at home at the palace a lot of the time and also onboard the yacht where they of course had other chefs. And I was to get a commis chef to help me do that. I think I mentioned recently the whole crazy factor in this profession.

I didn’t get the job. And for good reasons. At the time I had not yet got around to learning to drive and as this villa/small city was on top of a very big hill, a driving license was a necessity. Also I had fallen into that trap of trying to impress by cooking complex dishes that would not have looked out of place in a Michelin restaurant. This guy just wanted very simple, fresh and healthy food. Of course. He said my cooking had been excellent but that when he wanted high-end Michelin food, he went to a high-end Michelin restaurant. At home, he just wanted homely food. That did annoy me a bit as I had asked a few times what I should cook and just been told to cook what I normally cook. Had I been told that all the guy wanted was a piece of fresh fish, a beurre blanc and some in-season asparagus, then I would have knocked it out of the park. Ho hum.

Before I was driven back to the train station after my unsuccessful trial I was handed a white envelope by the staff manager. I opened it, €2000 for a day and a half’s work. I was obviously very grateful as that equated to about 2 months work in the ski resort but also gutted at what could have been. Again, I left the South of France thinking that maybe yachting was not really for me.

Now I really can’t thank these people enough as even after I had failed to impress their boss, they called me up again a couple of weeks later and offered me some work on board the yacht. I would be cooking for crew but may have to cook some guest food also. So after the ski season had come to a close, I again got the train down to Antibes and checked into the crew hostel. I ended up doing a couple of weeks work onboard the yacht and did actually cook for the owner once. “Wow! Tell us what he asked you to cook. What does a billionaire Arab prince have for his tea? Slow cooked Narnian Centaur bum, marinated in angel’s tears? Unicorn burgers?” Not quite. A cheese sandwich. Yes, all those years cooking in such prestigious kitchens as the House of Lords and the Mandarin Oriental had finally paid off and I was able to prepare a cheese sandwich for an Arab Prince. He even ate it!

At the end of my time onboard the yacht, the captain took me to one side and said that there might be a more permanent position coming up but that I would have to learn to drive and also get an STCW safety qualification in order to comply with regulations. So I had to make a decision. If I wanted to seriously consider going into yachting as a career then I would have to invest a large chunk of cash. The STCW course alone was over £1000 and who new how much it would cost to get me from never having driven a car to getting my license when lessons were over £20 per hour. I decided to go for it and so I went home to the UK and 2 months later I was an STCW qualified car driver and ready to take the yachting world by storm. It certainly hasn’t been a straightforward path but several years later, here I am, sitting in a bar on the dock in Tahiti not 100 yards from the 40m yacht I have been working on for nearly a year now, writing this blog.

I am a lucky boy. But not yet a bastard. I am still working my way up in the industry but hopefully one day I will be able to tell you about the 100m yacht I am working on, and you will say…what a bastard! (Affectionately of course).

TTFN

achefabroad x

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