Cooking on the high seas (or things they don’t teach you in culinary school)


photo 3For 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.


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Shopping the very bare shelves in Corfu.

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….photo 3


0 thoughts on “Cooking on the high seas (or things they don’t teach you in culinary school)

  1. Oh my gosh, Sally, I don’t know how you did it all! It sounded heavenly until you really had to start cooking full out! The shopping sounded great, but being part of the “crew” definitely sucked. Hope you made a pot full of money to make it all at least semi-worthwhile! I hope you got to see some of the beautiful islands and places you visited. Frank and I were on a masted schooner for several weeks in 2001 in part of the area you were in, and it really is magical and amazing how many times you cannot even see land. We are just “hungry” for more stories of your adventures. Your poor feet–makes the corners of my lips turn down just thinking about them. Good going on the pedicure! You will need another very soon I’m sure. Hope you will now enjoy just cooking for you & Ghazi and perhaps a few friends–you’ll think you are on vacation for real now! Love, Sandee

  2. Sal – When Marc and I sailed in the Whitsundays, we were just amazed at how awesome AND BUSY the chef was. When we woke up, he was chopping. When we went to bed, he was prepping. The kitchen was smaller than my previous apt at Abingdon Sq (at least half the size), and somehow he did it. Yes, he did it for a living, but the entire slew of guests were just blown away.

    Bravo to you for dealing with such high-end clientele with such skill and aplomb.

  3. A good, fun read even though it sounds rough 2 1/2 weeks. Glad you’re back on the air.

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Sally, I sure wish we’d had you aboard when we sailed from Panama to Tahiti a few years ago. The “chef” was a devout Buddhist who spent more time in the bow trying to talk to the dolphins than he did in the galley. Five thousand miles and the only meal I remember was the sashimi from our fresh-caught tuna. Can you believe we had no wasabi or ginger aboard? Welcome home, and all the best from Maine!

  5. Interestingly enough, I am an old merchant seaman and have spent many hours in the galley among other places on a ship. Therefore I can really sympathize with the situation you found yourself in… all that heeling over, and things falling out of places and rolling all over, and all that. What I don’t understand is why you were doing it barefoot? That’s just dangerous… way, way too dangerous. I never worked barefoot no matter where in the ship I was working. I am really curious why you felt you had to work barefoot?

    1. Hi Christina, It’s nice to hear that someone else out there can relate! The captain of the ship insisted we were all barefoot all the time. It was a surprise to me too but there was no room for negotiation. Fortunately I made it through without incident….except for a badly bruised toe from a jar escaping from the fridge as we sailed one day. Thanks for reading!

      1. My worst memory of this kind of situation was one afternoon, when leaving Valparaiso, Chile, I was not thinking clearly and had the tables in the officer’s mess all set up for the upcoming meal. When leaving Valpo, a ship crosses with the Humboldt Current somewhat broadside, so even though you usually have good weather down there in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, you can get a short duration of heavy rolling. By the time I made it to the Officer’s Mess at a dead run after the first roll, all the unsecured chairs were slamming back and forth from bulkhead to bulkhead through the sugar, olive oil, syrup, jam and salad dressing that was sloshing back and forth in waves, along with all the glass from the broken containers and the few whole ones that were rolling back and forth continuing to spew their contents, along with a soupcon of B&B plates mixed in… and all this with only 20 minutes to go before the first wave of diners!

        I am so glad you made it through without incident, but your tale reminds me of the first rubric taught to me upon my joining my first deep-sea vessel: “One hand for the company and one hand for yourself!” In your case meaning you could have suffered an everlasting injury, actually, in my experience, I would estimate your chances of injury were better than not. I must say, were I you, I would not have joined that vessel under those conditions. First though, I would have thrown a real Blue-Norther of a hissy fit, as should be expected of any Chef worth her salt, such as yourself 😉 and then compromised with kicking off my shoes when outside of the galley per se. If that was not acceptable, I would have left. And not just because of the probability of injury on the job, but more importantly, if any captain is that unconcerned with the potential of injury to his crew, you can be assured that s/he will have equal or greater unconcern for your safety and welfare in case of true disaster. Just point of curiosity: Did s/he make the engineer(s) also work in the engine room barefoot? I wonder if the captain was in violation of international law, or more probably of the maritime law of Greece (Greece has a very strong merchant marine, which is want you were in that position,) to force you to work in such an unsafe situation. Bet s/he was.

        Were I you, when next I was in contact with any ocean, I would make a nice offering to Neptune for your very good fortune in coming out of that dangerous situation unscathed.

        1. You’re right, I probably should have insisted I keep my shoes on, but I was so overwhelmed with the work in front of me that I didn’t have my full wits about me! The engineer was also barefoot the entire time, yes. It wasn’t until thinking about it all well after the fact that I was struck by how reckless it was.

          I will most certainly make an offering to Neptune next time I’m at the ocean. That sounds like a wonderful solution. Although, I hope I never work on a sailboat like this again. Once was more than enough!

  6. I am not normally much of a union sympathizer, although I was a union member my whole sailing career (I usually think they have outlived their necessity and now prey upon their membership almost as much as the corporations did that made unions necessary.) But in this case I must admit, this is exactly the kind of situation that made the unions necessary. And I am glad you got to experience the experience and gain all that knowledge (which is never wasted) all for the relatively inexpensive price of a bit of anxiety and discomfort! That and you got to experience the Mediterranean from that kind of a vessel. Very few do. In the end, a small price to pay for the whole thing, I would guess… at least now that it’s a memory and not a current reality, lol!

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