Pushing the boat out: our guide to becoming a yacht chef

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th July 2013
In May The Staff Canteen featured the story of Sam Boland, a chef who has worked on some of the biggest and most glamorous super yachts in the world. But is the life of a chef on the open waves all glamour and no grind? How can chefs thinking of making the switch to working at sea get into the industry and what experience and qualifications do they need? What qualities does it take to work in a small, confined space hundreds of miles away from home for months at a time? We decided to find out…   How do I become a yacht chef? Apart from a couple of certificates (see the info box) most agencies recruiting yacht chefs require at least two years’ experience in a professional kitchen, although you might be able to get on a small boat or as the second chef on a larger boat with less if you’re lucky. In general lots of experience is key and is becoming more so. According to Efrem Leigh, the director of yacht chef recruiting agency, yachtchefs.com : “There are very high expectations now from yacht owners. Getting your first job is very tough. I get CDPs coming to me from Michelin-starred restaurants wanting to be yacht chefs but it’s not that easy because you’re likely to be the only chef in the galley cooking, cleaning and provisioning all on your own so to go straight into that environment successfully you need to be at sous chef or head chef level.” Does that mean that CDP’s or lower can’t get work as yacht chefs? No, according to Efrem, it just means you might have to get on a larger boat as a second chef or ‘crew chef’ to learn the ropes; either that or take a more direct approach. “Go in person to where the boats are,” says Efrem. “Walk the docks; network; go to the agencies that are based where the yachts are; look on the internet. Smaller boats are more likely to advertise on the internet or put a note up in a bar.” What qualities will I need? Flexibility and adaptability are the watchwords! You will be cooking three meals a day for a broad range of tastes, nationalities and dietary and cultural requirements. You can’t turn your nose up at cooking breakfasts or buffets, not to mention pot washing! A broad range of culinary skills, techniques and knowledge are required. Paul Airey, first chef on board the 55-metre super yacht, M Y Kahalani says: “It’s no good if your chicken liver parfait, bread making skills, chive chopping or foam techniques are amazing if you can’t make an omelette! There in itself is the key to this job. You need a good round solid skill core from breakfast through to the last dessert of the night. Remember you may not be working with anyone with pastry skills, there could be just you!” Flexibility doesn’t just run to your cooking ability but to every aspect of your life. With long days and small kitchens, time and space management are crucial skills. You will need to be able to plan your days with military precision; there are three meals a day for owners and guests to think about as well as separate meals for the staff and any impromptu requests that might come at any time during the day or even at three o’clock in the morning!  Management of space is equally important. Paul Airey again: “I have a great Hobart dishwasher that I have in the galley which I also use sometimes as a bread prover - you have to manage space very well!” Egos, if you hadn’t already noticed, need to be left at the gang plank. With so little space you need to get on with people. You will almost certainly be sharing a room with someone else and you will rarely, if ever, find anywhere to be alone on the boat. Shouting and throwing pots at service staff probably isn’t going to cut the mustard; expecting people to eat what you want to cook is equally misguided; as Paul says: “Guests have not come to visit your restaurant because of your food, they are generally on holiday and so you will need to cook them what they want!” Apart from all that – and sorry for stating the obvious – you need sea legs. If you get seasick in the bath tub, the life of a yacht chef might not be for you. What are the pros and cons of being a yacht chef? The money is good. You could be earning around 60,000 euros a year as a first chef on a medium-sized boat and 42-48,000 euros even as a second chef with tips on top (which can be up to 2,000 euros a week on charter boats). With no accommodation, food or pretty much any other expenses to pay, that’s all going in the bank. Oh and did we forget to mention that’s all tax-free? You will also travel extensively to some of the most exotic places in the world and moor up at some of the most exclusive resorts and playgrounds of the rich and famous. The downsides are, as already mentioned, lack of personal time and space, long hours and no days off, sometimes for months at a time. There are the challenges of provisioning for long journeys with little storage space, not to mention trying to buy produce in a far-flung land where you can’t read the labels or ingredients  (is that sea salt or washing powder?) There are also the two sicknesses – sea sickness and home sickness. If you don’t like being away from friends and loved-ones for long then being several thousand miles away for months at a time might not be the way forward. Any other hints and tips? In terms of getting your first job, Paul Airey says: “Get on a boat as second or third chef for your first season, regardless of who you are or what experience you have. Learn the ropes beforehand. You may not like it or enjoy it. It is a different kettle of fish!” Efrem Leigh adds: “If you’re new, head to where the yachts are at the start of the season in April or May: Parma, Nice, Antibes, Monaco; you can stay in crew houses with other crew where you can make contacts and network; go to the docks every morning and ask the boats if they need any staff; make sure you take your CV with you for the agencies down there as well as food photos if you have them and start thinking about menu plans. Hundreds of other people will be doing the same as you but it’s the only way you’re going to get on a yacht.” Appearance is important when it comes to yacht work. “If you don’t have a photo and a date of birth on your CV they won’t look at you,” says Efrem, “It’s very image conscious. If you have visible tattoos on your neck or fists, the chances are you won’t get a job.” If all this seems a bit daunting, don’t forget: the hardest thing is getting your first job. Once you’ve done that the world is your oyster. As Efrem says: “Once you’ve done your first season, the whole industry opens up.” So if you’re thinking of becoming a yacht chef, don’t give it a wide berth; push the boat out and learn the ropes of a life on the ocean waves; shiver me timbers and batten down the hatches… …okay, we’ll stop there.  
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th July 2013

Pushing the boat out: our guide to becoming a yacht chef