On the Job

What a Yacht Chef's Shoes Says about Them

10 November 2023 By Nina Wilson
Illustration by John Devolle

Pre-galley, Nina Wilson trained as a dive instructor and skippered sailing boats in Greece before starting her yachting career in 2013. Currently head chef on a 55-meter, her talents included telling brilliant jokes and being able to consume six cheeseburgers and feel no guilt. Follow her on Instagram @thecrewchef.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a chef by the type of shoes they wear? I’ll give it my best shot.

1. Birkenstock Chef: Feels disproportionate pride over their “hip” choice of footwear. Likes to tell everyone else how comfortable their Birks are. Staged at The Ledbury. Won’t shut up about natural wine (“skin contact” and “mousey” being pet phrases). Probably in the process of converting a van. Listens to The 1975. Midnight snack is a handful of Daim chocolates. Stresses about currency exchange rates.

2. Rubber Clog Chef: Comfort till death. Still wears the baggy black trousers and is known for having a plumber’s crack on display 90 percent of the time. Listens to progressive house and partakes in recreational substances on the occasional weekend. Sweats a lot. Gets confused between astrology and astronomy. Steak medium rare, likes to chew the fat. Triple-cooked chips are still hip.

3. Sneaker-wearing Chef: A new breed. Ahead of the curve. Not part of the “old guard” and is happy to employ a stew-turned-chef. Wears lululemon golf trousers and religiously listens to podcasts while working. Dabbles in a bit of yoga and/or basketball. Obviously has their own kombucha scoby and sourdough starter. Types their menus in all lowercase. Can be seen wearing a baseball cap during service.

4. Boot Chef: Likes to wear dungarees in personal time. Identifies as a forager. Enjoys hiking, swimming in cold water, and telling people they’re a cold-water swimmer even more than the swimming itself. Their galley speaker is blown from listening to Fred Again too loud. Operates at a “very high frequency.” Presents dishes with elements like “tomato water.” Has lots of fine line tattoos.

5. Barefoot Chef: Unhinged. Superhuman ability to ignore crumbs on the floor. Likes to listen to prog rock and a touch of N.W.A. Thinks it perfectly acceptable to serve quiche Lorraine as a starter at dinner. Wears a lot of Under Armour but is rarely seen working out. Doesn’t let the stewardesses speak during service. Never empties the crew mess dishwasher.

Disclaimer: all the chefs described above are purely fictional and any similarity with any chef I have ever worked with is coincidental.

All jokes aside, chef shoes are a contentious point. Age, gender, foot width, and bunions do not dictate which sole speaks to your soul, and all chefs have fallen in love with one type  or another. They might change shoes throughout their career, they might not. But above all, I’m sure we can agree that shoes are damn important.

I feel the traditional chef shoe, the OG, is the rubber clog. Clown-like, slightly medical, extremely comfortable, and very easy to clean. I love a shortcut, and once tossed my rubber clogs into the Hobart dishwasher, which likes to operate at around 84°C. They subsequently shrank.

These rubber clogs are also debatably the safest. The first pair of chef shoes I wore on board genuinely made me look and walk like a clown due to the fact my overbearing head chef had ordered the “XTRASAFE CLOG” complete with an extended toe protector cap. I was constantly tripping over, and to be honest, their rigid toe caps never really came into their own as I rarely worked with things like bricks, RSJs, or pickaxes.

And then there’s the Birkenstock clog. In Germany several decades ago, Birkenstocks were considered the shoe of nouveau hippies and radical intellectuals. If you wore them, you were one, the other, or both. Then the Olsen twins were spotted wearing them — paired with white socks — and launched them into the “acceptable footwear” space, making them no longer the sole (pun intended) footwear choice of backpackers. (It seems that ugly shoes and a surge in popularity go hand in hand — look at what happened with Crocs last year. Even Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber rocked out with their Crocs out.)

But have chefs now claimed Birks for their own? I did a survey on the yacht chef WhatsApp group and exactly 50 percent said they wear the leather and cork Birkenstocks. Personally, I don’t get it. The Birkenstock is the single most hideous shoe ever created. They’re German birth control that are good for the feet. What is it about these Jesus joggers that they love so much?

Birks wearers wax lyrical about supported arches and wide footbeds, soft leather, and aesthetic cork. The Birkenstock website continues to toot its own trumpet, saying that its kitchen line is “designed to promote your health and protect you in all possible movement scenarios,” which is very Germanic and brings to mind the practice of water stepping (Google it). All I can say is keep those stinky foot cages away from my galley.

Ahhh, sneaker wearers, you thought you were going to sneak away unnoticed? Let’s be real, you’re wearing sneakers to look good and feel comfortable, not to save your toes from being chopped off. If that Fingal Ferguson cleaver goes flying, I hope you can move quickly. A few other brands have jumped on the sneaker bandwagon with Vans pushing out their “Made for Makers” line, with slip-resistant soles and spill-proof uppers, and Cheval with their sneaker/boot thing that looks like a high top but is actually just made of rubber. It gives me sweaty feet just thinking about it.

Barefoot chefs are chaotic and probably only belong on small sailing yachts where they dart out every now and then to help “tuck the mainsail” or “heave ho,” or whatever it is those WAFIs do.

Last but not least, boots. I am now a convert after years of tragic rubber clogs. After doing a stage in a hip Tasmanian farm-to-table restaurant where the chefs would traipse out into the neighboring garden to harvest, my eyes were opened to the boot-wearing chefs. Look, they were just so coool. I just want to be them, OK?! Plus, they’re leather, sturdy, and look badass.

The truth is that most people won’t be looking at your feet while you’re cooking. But if you do go out to see the guests, please, for the love of God, wipe off your shoes and don’t even think about going barefoot.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Dockwalk.


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