Extreme Cooking: A Yacht Chef's Adventure
I'd never seen the ocean turn that particular shade of grey. I could barely discern where the steel grey waves stopped and the concrete grey sky began, especially when the boat heeled to a forty-five-degree angle.
Smash! The starboard cupboard flung open with a force that catapulted half a dozen glass vases from their shelf. They broke apart on the floor like sputtering tomato sauce on a hot stove. I had securely taped that cupboard and thought it was safe, but nothing in all my years of being a yacht chef prepared me for the violence of this storm.
For the past twelve years, I have traveled the oceans cooking onboard a yacht for discerning clientele. I have shopped in markets in the Caribbean, in the South Pacific, and in the Mediterranean. I have prepared meals for rock stars, business tycoons and movie stars. The pressure is always high and the behind-closed-doors scene is frequently chaotic, but never had I been asked to cook in such a rollercoaster of a galley before.
From my refuge on the cool marble floor, I tilted my head and studied the shards of glass scattered in front of me. I thought about pushing myself up off the floor to gather them, but I couldn't summon enough emotion to care. I just wanted to lie there until the storm ended.
Ella, our stewardess crawled into the galley, looking greener than the bowl of peas I served for dinner the night before. "They are asking for dinner at seven." Her voice was a monotone of dullness. Blue eyes normally danced like sunlight on the water, but at that moment they held about as much life as a blob of silly putty.
"In this?" I asked as we careened off the next wave. The boat shuddered as we impacted with the water below. I became airborne and wondered how the food would stay on the plate.
"I don't know. They're crazy." Ella lay down beside me as I rose to clean up the mess and start dinner.
I clutched the counter for the next wave and was thrown into the corner with the force of another drop. The oncoming slaughter of waves was relentless. A bruise formed on my hip as I braced myself for the next plunge. This was no way to create a meal. But, in the yachting industry, you never said no.
Earlier in the day, I had planned to make an Indonesian fish curry to serve with spring rolls and stir-fried greens, but sambal olek, shrimp paste, and deep-frying didn't sound like the best options right then. Did they really want dinner? I thought. Are they nuts?
But, they were the guests and technically were paying me to be in this situation, so if they wanted dinner at seven, then they would get dinner at seven. Usually dinner consisted of four to five courses served on Bulgari fine china and accompanied by high-end wines, decanted and poured into crystal glasses. The women dressed in the latest fashion with diamonds and black pearls to accentuate the look, while the men would sip martinis and exchange stock tips. It was an elegant, civilized affair. But, not that night. The frantic waves and hurricane-force winds dictated a much less formal affair. Roast chicken and mashed potatoes sounded like all I, or anyone else, could handle.
I opened a cupboard. Pots that had shifted in the storm crashed to the floor, landing on my foot.
"Ow," I muttered.
"Are you okay?" Ella asked from where she lay.
"Is that a trick question?"
I filled the pot with water, placed it on the stove to heat and turned to the refrigerator. I used my body to block any stray containers that would rocket to the floor if they too had moved. The last thing I wanted was to scramble the eggs on the floor instead of a pan. Slosh, slosh! I hoped that was the sound of the water in the pot instead of the waves outside. I secured the bars of the fiddley like strapping a child into his seatbelt to be sure there was not a tidal wave of boiling water splashing me as I cooked.
I opened the oven and immediately burned myself when I lost my balance with the lurch of the boat. I practically threw the chicken inside and slammed the door. I resumed my position beside Ella on the floor, dreading when I would have to get up and baste the bird. What were they thinking? We lay there, silent. There wasn't much to say. The boat zigged and zagged while our stomachs tucked and rolled. Ella dragged herself to check on the guests. I lay hopeful that they would cancel dinner. Ella returned and shook her head.
"Dinner's still at seven." We went back to hugging the hardwood.
Half way through the cooking time, the boat rose out of the water to a particularly dizzying height. I could feel ourselves climbing and knew this would be bad. I spread my limbs out like a star to grip the floor as we pitched to the port and dropped. The oven door flung open with the momentum. The roasted chicken left the security of the pan and sailed across the galley. Splat! It landed on the floor just a few feet from where Ella and I lay. Hot juice splattered. The bones cracked and the bird lost its shape. A wing tore off and landed in the corner. The flesh lay dismembered. Crash! The heavy copper pan hit the ground and bounced onto the roast, squishing it even further into a dismembered mess.
Ella and I just lay there staring. I couldn't believe it. That was dinner for the guests. Ella began to giggle. "I guess I don't have to carve tableside." I, too, began laughing. What else could I do? This would not be the artistic creation I usually strived for. "Maybe you can see if they would mind something else for dinner?" I looked to the floor. "Hopefully something with shredded chicken."
And, thus another adventure in the life as a yacht chef began. It is a strange thing to not be in control. I am never sure how many people I will be cooking dinner for, what they would like to eat, at what time, or sometimes, even what country we will be in. My work place moves. After an eighteen-hour day, I fall into my bunk, exhausted in Italy and wake up five hours later in France. In the past, I've spent two whole days creating an elaborate buffet for one hundred just to be told half an hour before serving that the plans had changed and they would be going to another boat for dinner. It is craziness and calamity, and in the case above, scary, but it is never dull.
Yachting has taken me to forty-five different countries to explore. I have followed my stomach into markets in Italy to find the source of the emerald-green pesto that coated my plate of pasta, and onto fishing boats in Tahiti in search of the freshest tuna for salad. I've learned to make succulent chicken and olive tagine from a Moroccan man in his kitchen in Marrakech and been shown how to roll fresh spring rolls from a giggling Vietnamese woman on the banks of the Mekong river. There is nothing boring about being a yacht chef. For me, it is one culinary adventure after another.
Spanish Basque Chicken
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
3 yellow onions, sliced
1 chicken, roasted and shredded into large bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon Espelette pepper or 24 grinds black pepper
1 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika
2 links Spanish chorizo, sliced into coins
4 tomatoes, diced to 1/2" cubes
3 sprigs thyme
1 cup chicken stock
1 jar roasted red peppers, sliced
16 Spanish green olives (large)
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
In a heavy-bottomed saute pan, over medium-high heat, saute garlic and onion in olive oil for 5-8 minutes until golden.
Add chicken, sea salt, black pepper, paprika, chorizo, tomatoes, thyme and chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. Gently stir in red peppers and green olives and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Stir in parsley for color.
Serve over yellow rice.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 white onion, diced fine
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch saffron
1 cup extra-long-grain rice
In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, saute the garlic and onion in the olive oil for 5 minutes until golden. Add the chicken broth, sea salt, saffron and rice. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium-low.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 15 minutes until the liquid is evaporated. Do not stir. Remove from the heat and let rest, covered for 5 minutes. Use a fork to fluff the grains and serve.
Victoria Allman is a columnist for Dockwalk, an international magazine for yacht crew and Marina Life Magazine. She has been a yacht chef for 12 years and traveled through the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific gathering recipes and tales for her stories. Her first book, Sea Fare: A Chef's Journey Across the Ocean was released to critical acclaim and won the prestigious Florida Writers Association's Royal Palm Literary Award for Travel. To learn more, please visit: http://www.victoriaallman.com