The way to a crew’s heart is their stomach…

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Q: Anonymous, chef, 37:

“I’m a sole chef on a busy 50m, and I’ve got a super-fussy crew who are driving me up the wall. The engineer only wants to eat meat and potatoes, the captain only likes stodgy old English food, and the girls seem to be on a different crazy diet every week. I just can’t please them all, and when I do ask what they want, they come up with the same old thing (burgers) or have no ideas at all. I am so bored with dishing up pub food and tasteless salads, it makes me wonder why I signed up to be a yacht chef at all! When I try to make nice things for them they don’t appreciate it, and when we’re off charter they often don’t bother coming back for meals they’ve said they’ll be there for, which is screwing with my tight food budget and wasting my time. Any ideas or should I just leave and try to find a better crew who do appreciate good food?”

A: The Crew Coach:

I was a crew chef for the later part of my yachting career, so I can really identify with this one! However, as much as I sympathise with some of the pressures you’re facing and think that some steps can be taken to improve the situation, there are two sides to this story and it might help you to also have a think about looking at it from the crew’s perspective.

I’m not sure how you run your galley, but I’m guessing that like most boats, you don’t let the crew in there to cook for themselves. Quite understandable too, as it’s your workspace, but when you think about it, this means they don’t get to decide what they eat, or to cook for themselves when they feel like a fry-up or some home made comfort food. While it’s lovely to be cooked for, it’s also nice as an adult to decide what we want to eat, and a large part of crew morale comes from mealtimes.

Yes, I hear you: you DO ask them what they want, and they always ask for the same thing… which is telling you something really, isn’t it – it’s what they want! It’s quite common for crew just to want basic, home-style food. Comfort food. And your job, as crew chef, is to provide them the food they like eating (as long as it’s nutritious.) This might not be what you want to cook, but as long as they are happy with the food they’re eating, that’s all that matters!

I’m sure you’ve heard that expression ‘an army doesn’t march on an empty stomach’ and that is really true of our crew – when they have happy bellies they are better able to crack on and plow through their demanding work lists, with a smile on their face and a spring in their step.

Having said this, I do appreciate that you want and need to keep your skills up so you can impress the owner and charter guests. This is a common problem for yacht chefs, as you’re not surrounded by other chefs to learn from and be inspired by, as you would be in a restaurant. So you’re honing your skills on your crew, but the problem is, they’re not always happy about it.

I know of a Michelin star restaurant chef who kept serving his crew things like stuffed wild boar with intricate side dishes… when all they wanted after a hard day was, you guessed it, burgers and chips. Naturally he wanted to keep experimenting and refining his skills, but the crew ended up feeling like guinea pigs for his culinary aspirations as he was more forcing them on the crew rather than letting the crew feel like these were special treats on the odd occasion. It’s important that you don’t let that happen – you should always time your experiments to be at a time when the crew will be happy about trying new things, and make sure you have some ‘normal’ food for those who are not feeling adventurous.

As for the crew not coming back at mealtimes when they’ve signed up to eat, this is a real problem for your budgeting, and it’s completely understandable that it makes you angry to see your lovely food and time wasted. It’s a hard one to manage, as it’s also quite understandable that crew want the freedom to be able to go out to dinner with old friends they just ran into in the bar. My suggestion would be to serve up leftovers the next day and explain, calmly and reasonably, that you need to watch the budget and food waste. Get them to understand that if they have any doubt at all they’ll be in for dinner, they should say they won’t be. Leave enough ingredients in the crew fridge for toasties in case they come home hungry.

As for the girls and their ‘crazy diets’, I think you’re missing a great opportunity here. This is the place where you can be truly creative and flex your fancy chef muscles – after all, yacht guests are often prone to the odd crazy diet and this is a wonderful chance for you to not only practice creating delicious dishes that meet their requirements, but also to get the interior team really on your side as well. Perhaps you could sit down with them one afternoon and have a brainstorming session with some cookbooks to see what you can come up with that ticks all their gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan non-sugar boxes. You could even think about putting a smoothie maker like a Nutribullet in the crew mess so people can whip up their own tasty treats without having to bother you.

Finally, you mention that the crew often have no ideas when you ask them what they want to eat, and this is very common as many of these people don’t really cook themselves so they may not have much of a culinary imagination. Again this is a great team building opportunity – why not approach the HOD’s and ask for their help as a professional courtesy? You could ask them to get their teams to come up with a list of their favourite dishes – either comfort food recipes from home, or different national cuisines, or anything they like. Give them some of your cookbooks or cooking magazines to flick through for inspiration and create a whiteboard where people can put requests up on the board. Another nice idea is that when a new team member joins you ask them what their favourite dishes are, and then serve that for dinner on their first night onboard, with all the bells and whistles.

As for the issue of them not saying thanks? I can see how that is pretty demotivating for you, but I think you’ll find that if you implement some of these ideas and start cooking the food they want to eat, rather than the food that you want to cook, the thanks and appreciation will come.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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