On the Job

Yacht Chefs’ Strained Relationship with Time

22 December 2021By Nina Wilson
Illustration by John Devolle

Written by

Nina Wilson

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.

We have a strained relationship with an item in the galley. It’s seemingly innocuous, round, typically white and black, and it makes little innocent ticking noises. Yes, it’s the clock. Perhaps it’s not the clock itself we take issue with — it’s what it represents; time, or rather, the lack of it.

I looked up some quotes regarding time in hope of finding a tidbit of inspiration for myself. “Better three hours too soon than a minute late” was one of the first to arise. Hmm. The author was clearly not a chef and had never dabbled in soufflés. Yes indeed, though, it’s all about timing. Any chef can tell you that. The galley continuously runs on the clock, spinning round and round, day in, day out.

It’s common practice to set the galley clock a few minutes forward. I even have a friend, a head chef on a 90-meter, who sets every single timekeeping piece in the galley exactly eight minutes fast. You might wonder, why even bother — if we know it’s fast, what’s the point? But I believe it’s a self-soothing, pseudo-calming technique. We look, we blanch(!), and then we remember it’s fast, so we calm back down and feel relieved. Yes, it’s all a bit of a rollercoaster, but give us a break; it’s our attempt to control time.

The thing about time is that it never moves the way you want it to. Have you made a mistake and dressed the salad too early before lunch? You bet those clock hands are going to drag while your salad sits there wilting. More often, though, they move far too fast as you peer nervously into the oven, praying the internal meat thermometer temperature will rise faster.

I currently have six timekeeping devices in the galley, including our smartwatches, the oven, microwave, and kitchen timers. Anyone would be familiar with these handy gadgets and their staccato ticking punctuated with a shrill ring.

I’ve heard of yacht chefs with internal clocks. It’s almost folklore — allegedly the sous chef would set a timer and just before it went off, the head chef would turn, musing, “That timer should go off any second.”

If we’re so good at timing, then why, may I ask, are we so terrible at bringing the provisions back right on tea break? Or lunch break. Or right at knock off? That’s a fun one: convincing the crew that the fresh produce delivery really will arrive soon, and it’s in their best interests for them to stick around and help you cart all 17 crates on board.

The thing about time is that it never moves the way you want it to. Have you made a mistake and dressed the salad too early before lunch? You bet those clock hands are going to drag while your salad sits there wilting.

I would like to also bring to light that the galley is not the only department guilty of these time-keeping misdemeanors. The interior are often chattering into the radio at 10 minutes past 12 — “Can we get a hand bringing all the guest wine on, please?”

Yes, joyfully, I will leave my plate of hot cheesy nachos, lug a bunch of expensive wine I will never get to drink up the passerelle in the burning midday sun, and then return to my cold lunch. Sure, no problem. Teamwork makes the dream work, people!

Time is money — perhaps yacht chefs know this better than most. It’s a passionate yacht chef that makes all from scratch in their galley, yet at the same time it’s the smart chef that knows when to outsource. Time is not just money in that sense; it’s sanity and even turns into self-care. Can the boss fork out a bit extra to bring in some stocks from an artisan butcher and in turn give you a better-looking Hours of Rest sheet? The answer is always yes.

As a sous chef on board a busy charter yacht, I often experienced that the feeling of the boat and crew around me gathering itself pre-service was extremely similar to putting on a show. The undercurrent of nerves reminded me of my side-stage butterflies at a dance concert. The whole flow of food from the galley, from under the heat lamp to the hands of service stews, the courses being called, the dishes being announced, felt like a ballet. This is when the timing is somewhat relinquished from the galley, and the chief stewardess becomes the conductor. They are now the one in charge. They are the eyes for we chefs deep down in the galley — and often sometimes it’s almost a relief to relinquish the guesswork and let it be called for you.

Time-saving tricks are a part of the yacht chef’s repertoire. I will learn to open and close any low oven with my foot so I can have that done before I swing down with the tray. Plus, one does feel quite badass kicking an oven door shut. Or the walk-in door. Any door for that matter. A backwards-style donkey kick with a satisfying slam: it’s not just for time-saving, it’s also because my hands are full.

Time is money — perhaps yacht chefs know this better than most. It’s a passionate yacht chef that makes all from scratch in their galley, yet at the same time it’s the smart chef that knows when to outsource. 

Yacht chefs are the ones who know exactly how long it’ll take them to sprint to their dry store and locate the desiccated coconut. It’s critical; will they make it back before the chocolate brownies are needing to be pulled out of the oven? A savvy yacht chef will have the provisions grab-and-dash down pat.

The other timed activity that a few yacht chefs will have absolutely dialed is the cat nap (aka the nana nap, the power nap; whatever you want to call it). Have I got a 10-minute window? I know that I will be able to nap for seven minutes of that. I’m yet to be so desperate to have a nap on the galley floor but as someone who regularly falls asleep on public buses and ski lifts, I’m sure it’ll be no issue.

In the meantime, you’ll find me still glancing over my shoulder at the clock, starting, and then smiling. You’ll find my sous chef muttering into her wrist as she drops pasta into boiling water. “Set timer for eight minutes.” And to all my other yacht chefs out there, feeling bound by the same hands (pun intended), rest assured, we are all experiencing the same love/hate relationship.

Pork Shoulder Braised with Beer

> 2 kg pork butt
> 2 onions
> 3 garlic cloves
> 3 bay leaves
> 2 tins of lager
> 1 large bottle of passata
> 3-5 assorted dried chilies, guajillo, ancho, etc. (seeds removed and toasted)
> Brown sugar

iStock/Bartosz Luczak

Find yourself a lovely pork butt, and if you can be bothered, sear off the sides to a golden brown. Nestle it on top a bed of sautéed sliced onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, and a sprinkle of brown sugar, tucking in a few dried chilies around the side. Semi-submerge it by pouring in a few tins of your favorite lager and a jar or two of passata.

Cover tightly with foil and then slide into a 150°/160°C oven for, say, five to six hours, or until fork-tender. Pull the meat from its bath, blitz the remaining tray sauce, and pass through a sieve, reducing on the stove if you want it thicker.

Serve sliced or shredded, with the glossy sauce poured over the top.

(Of course, it had to be a time-related recipe, and the results are completely dependent on the amount of time you don’t touch it.)

This article originally ran in the September 2021 issue of Dockwalk.

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