BEING A YACHT CHEF IS A FLOATING WORLD AWAY FROM COOKING IN A RESTAURANT.
JEMMA HARRISON has a variety of jobs, from BBC broadcast journalist, news reader and producer to founder of English knitwear company Funi. However, there’s not one where ‘normal’ is defined by a) waking up to galleys dripping with tomato sauce or b) having three hours to catch up with a boyfriend after six months of ‘long distance relationship’ maintained by jumpy phone reception.
Harrison, 35, has now been a yacht chef for eight years, stirring and mixing in the galleys of nautical behemoths like the Indian Empress Monaco during Grand Prix week and for clients whose tips could be US$10,000, an iPhone or a new Rolex.
Aside from an STCW qualification (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers), yacht chefs rely on past experience as well as word of mouth among Captains and first mates. They can pocket an average of €3,000 to €7,000 a month for a medium-sized sailing boat – and that’s before those tasty tips.
On top of the pay, a yacht chef is also one of the few jobs that comes with free rides to exotic destinations, where you could be watching grizzly bears catch salmon or shark diving between reefs.
For charter chefs especially, there’s the freedom to cook for a carousel of palettes, while contracts can range from permanent to seasonal to freelance-based.
In fact, this flexibility and range of options is one of the main reasons some restaurant chefs are hanging up their aprons and leaving behind their entourage of sous chefs for 4m by 7m galleys – and that’s if they’re lucky.
Yacht chefs often work in solitude, on unforgiving seas and sometimes with equally unforgiving clients whose taste buds are attuned to Michelin-starred fare.
Fisher at home at sea
Craig Fisher, 33, has been a chef for 13 years – three at sea – and remembers replicating a poached artichoke dish for a client who had planned to visit the restaurant for which it was famous.
“The pressure was definitely on. There was no information aside from what she’s given me – it was a classic, old style of cooking, not something I usually do. I jumped online with the stewardess, did research about the restaurant, about the menu and worked it out. Aside from the sauce being a bit different, she was absolutely blown away,” he said.
“Everywhere we go, especially in Europe, our food is up against some of the best restaurants in the region, so we have to meet and exceed that standard. That’s the fun part, when you can showcase what you can do as one person versus a restaurant team of chefs.
“With charter, each boat is a different challenge. Sometimes you get a whole lot of raw vegans followed by American meat eaters – a real mixed bag. You don’t become robotic doing the same thing as you would at a restaurant. The world is your oyster out here.”
Harrison says the job is akin to running a mini floating hotel.
And the key, she added, is to be as prepared as possible. Though it’s customary for guests to confirm the menus and answer questions like what and how they wish to be served, chefs are essentially at their beck and call around the clock, meaning paleo and glutton-free requests come at the snap of fingers.
Or, like the tomato-sauce accident, it’s not unusual for vacationers to return on board in the wee hours of the morning – possibly inebriated – and decide to make a midnight snack and an even bigger mess.
Since yacht chefs are usually lone wolves, Instagram and Pinterest inspirations are a godsend, as are good short cuts. Always boxed and stocked in Harrison’s fridge, for example, are gyoza fillings, which can complement chopped noodles in case of any lastminute menu change.
“The main thing is that there is no endless food, especially when you’re out on charter for two weeks. You must be very prepared,” she said.
“Guests normally understand and don’t really complain when they’re on vacation and over the years you learn to steer them in a certain direction, like ‘the snapper just came today and is super fresh, so why don’t we try that’.”
Technically, cooking on a rocking giant is not an easy feat. Zeroing pastry scales is mission impossible; sauce is almost exclusively made with short cuts; bigger slabs of meat have to be sacrificed for smaller portions; gas and fire replaced with electric stoves; and slow-cook recipes like broths and consommé less preferred due to time restraints and threats of turbulence.
And while megayachts may boast galleys decked with sous vide machines, ice-cream makers, storage tunnels and walk-in fridges the size of Carrie Bradshaw’s walk-in wardrobe in Sex and the City, others may be more like small caves.
Highs and lows
Yacht chefs typically enjoy great access to the freshest seafood, either straight from markets on the coast or when they arrive beside the yacht in the hands of eager local fishermen wanting to earn a few extra bucks.
The downside, says Fisher, can be finding replacements for what he had thought were staples around the world.
“In a restaurant, you have the same supplier, so you know their products and all the changes you can expect are seasonal. But on a yacht, you may be looking at 20 different definitions of flour in Italy that they don’t have in France,” he said.
“I grew up cooking with British or American-graded flour, which we struggled to find, but coming out of a restaurant, this job is definitely a phenomenal experience. It’s a luxury.”
However phenomenal, both Harrison and Fisher say the highstress environment and severe sleep deprivation have definitely had a toll on their health. Fisher goes as far as saying he won’t be sticking around after he hits 40.
In fact, to maintain good chefs in the industry, Captains are more likely to allow for three-month rotations so the staff get a break in-between. For Fisher, this means surfing in San Sebastián until winter season rolls around. But even without this unsaid policy, both chefs agree that freelance jobs aren’t hard to find.
While Fisher is keeping any ‘retirement’ plans close to his chest, Harrison has been paying it forward since last November with the opening of a mobile yacht chef school, Gally Gang, where a group of 100 chefs rent villas for cook-offs in popular yachting hubs like Antigua and – come October – Antibes and Parma. Classes on sushi, canapés and dessert, to name but a few, will be taught.
“For me, it’s a definite ‘no’ for going back to restaurants. The hours are the same on the yacht for a lot more pay,” she said.
“Gally Gang basically helps chefs transition between restaurant and galley. You’d be surprised how much more you have to know as a yacht chef. We really have to be good at everything: experience, menu planning, photography, resume writing, pitching for jobs, you name it.”
Top: Jemma Funi Harrison.
Bottom: Caribbean ginger and mango tart with a rum yolk and blackberry sorbet.
Top: Craig Fisher and friend Nacho pose with a Wahoo in the Maldives.
Bottom: Fisher says culinary creativity is what keeps him on a yacht.
“You don’t become robotic doing the same thing as you would at a restaurant. The world is your oyster out here.”
Craig Fisher, 33