For the past three weeks I’ve been sailing on the high seas, quite literally. I took a chef job working on a sailboat for some clients and this is not some dinky sailboat that you see trolling around inlets and marinas, this is a boat that people ran to get their cameras and take pictures of as we sailed past. She is 146 feet long, sleeps 9 guests and was home to me and six other crew who took care of them. It was three weeks of challenges and magic and lots and lots of food and while I’m so glad to add this to my resume, please don’t ask me to do it again any time soon.
Antibes, France was where I joined the gang, most of whom have been sailing most of their lives. My suitcase was loaded into the tender (the small rubber motorboat that would be our only lifeline to the shore) and under the sunny skies I thought to myself how lucky am I? However, once introduced to my miniscule kitchen, assigned my top bunk and given thorough instructions on how to squeegee the wet room after a shower, I drew in a deep breath and had to remind myself it wasn’t forever. As soon as I was on the boat I was back on land, on a bike following the Stewardess through the tourist-filled streets in search of long-life milk, some delicious cheeses, and uniform shorts that would fit me. We rode with bags hanging from our handlebars and I thought that perhaps I’d never live to see the trip as we dashed around the cobblestone streets.
The next morning, after stashing my boxes of provisions under floorboards and in every nook and cranny I could find, we sailed, bidding France adieu and heading due south towards Corfu, Greece. It was three days of motoring on perfectly calm seas….no wind to be had. The deckhands, engineer and captain all rotated watch as we never stopped and I was able to take the time to get my sea legs and figure out how I was going to actually do my job. I was responsible for not only the guests’ meals but also seven very hungry crew members. Most disconcerting to me at the beginning was that I had to work barefoot, forever fearing that I’d drop a hot pot of water on my toes or perhaps a knife. I’m not the most adept and the constant movement made me even more fearful of disaster than usual.
By 7:30am on day two we’d caught a live one. The boys had put out a fishing line and we had a big bite and by 8:15am we had a 20kg yellowfin tuna on board. It was handed to me and I now had the responsibility to do right by it. After a celebratory sushi session on deck with lots of wasabi and pickled ginger, I took the beast below deck and dissected it best I could. It would be tuna for lunch for some time, with much being frozen for the guests later. When I did later serve the tuna again, the guests oohed and aahed over the freshness, a lesson in the idea that less is more: rub a little toasted sesame oil on the fish with a bit of salt and pepper and roll in a mixture of black and white sesame seeds – a little more oil in a very hot pan and sear for only about 30 seconds on each side. Perfection.
It wasn’t until we sailed through the 1.5 mile wide Strait of Messina between Italy’s boot and Sicily, that we picked up enough wind to actually sail. This is when I finally got to see what I’d be dealing with:my stove on a kimbal heading one way while I tried to balance going the other. There were lots of noises as the boat settled and moaned and sprang into action, the water rushing next to the hull, me praying we weren’t going to actually capsize. But my job was to get on with it, avoid the jars that fall out of the fridge (and onto bare toes) as we rocked, learn to arrange things on the counters based on which way we were keeling, prepare to put everything back when I got the word we were going to jibe (and hence tilt 45 degrees the other way). However, that night, as we sailed silently through the sea, I sat on deck and listened to the waves and watched the stars move in between our tall masts, and was entranced.
Once the guests were on board things changed. Crew were only allowed to go up and down between decks by ladder – I felt ungainly, much like one of Degas’ bathers, hunched over bruised. My feet started to feel more like hooves and when I woke up in the morning I could feel the rungs of the ladders pushing into my soles. We also had to wear uniforms, the “welcome” whites being particularly unflattering and not kitchen friendly. There were no more hours on deck watching wales and dolphins, instead my kitchen (three steps from my cabin) went into high gear, preparing everything from a plate of olives to a three course meal.
For the next two and a half weeks the days rolled one into the other, just waiting to hear what the whims of our guests were for the day, where we’d go, what I’d be feeding them, how many I’d be feeding. For two days running I prepared lunch for 10, including some royalty (no pressure there) only to finish the meal and have to figure out what to feed my fellow crew members and then prepare dinner for the guests again. It was non-stop for several days and I wasn’t sure I could do it much more. In between cooking I was taking the tender to shore and scouring the local shops for fresh fruits, veggies, fish. One day I was so laden with bags that the lady from the butcher shop offered to take me back to the marina on the back of her moped and I’ve never felt more grateful not to have to walk five blocks.
Over the next few days I’ll share some of the recipes I created on the fly – I took lots of notes as I laid in my bunk just inches from the ceiling – and tell you more stories about the crazy time I had. I’m still recovering – had a pedicure today, but my feet still feel numb and my muscles still ache, but I’m getting back into my real life. Just wanted to give you a little taste of my great adventure and hope all of you are having fantastic summers! More to come….