On the Job

Yacht Chefs and Provisioning: A Love-Hate Relationship

22 March 2022By 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.

Provisioning. Shopping. Spending the boss’s money. No one does it better than a yacht chef (or chief stew) armed with a fully loaded black Voly credit card and no budget.

It really is a love-hate relationship between yacht chefs and provisioning. Potentially the worst thing about it is that it’s never over — you are always, again and again, going to have to re-provision/restock/top-up, etc. There is absolutely no way around it; people need to eat, the cupboards and fridges start looking bare, and you are the one in charge of that particular department. So as a yacht chef, you better come to accept it.

There’s a number of ways one can go about it, but none really are the best.

Option A: Get the professionals in and then cringe at the bill. They do all the “hard work” sourcing, hunting down your freeze-dried rhubarb from New Zealand, the achiote chili paste, and the smoked mussels that Brexit has really put an embargo on.

The unpacking of a provisioner’s delivery is a roller coaster of emotion — you cry with joy at the perfect, tiny, wild strawberries, but then the pak choi is actually a bok choy (awfully common mistake), and instead of sending you three liters of Greek yogurt, they’ve sent you three tiny pots. I’ve never been afraid to send things back — a tray of manky spinach, photos of squashed Roma tomatoes by WhatsApp. It’s always going to be hit and miss, and because you’re either too busy or don’t have the means to go in person, it’s an acceptable risk to take.

Costs can be astronomical. I’m wincing thinking about the time I paid €120 for two proving baskets for my sourdough. Even worse, they were the wrong shape, which made me wonder (somewhat unkindly) if the person buying had skipped primary school? But I digress; there has been many a time when a provisioner has pulled off a hat trick and saved my bacon (literally, my supply of Nueske’s was almost out, and they found some within six hours). Shops run by provisioning companies are also a blessing — quality produce and specialty items (hello, dried hibiscus flowers!). But never have I been more appalled in my life than walking out of American Gourmet in St. Barths €281 lighter with 12 avocados and a bag of baby cucumbers.

Option B: Going it yourself. Armed with spare coins for trolley, exactly 137 scruffy old Carrefour bags, and the vague hope of getting back in time to put up crew lunch. It’s a known fact that time doesn’t exist in a supermarket. The consistently harsh lighting, and lack of windows and clocks is suspiciously like a casino, both structured in a manner to separate you and your (boss’s) hard-earned dollar. It’s genuinely a time vacuum. You pull up bright and bushy-tailed, crisply printed shopping list in hand, blasting towards blushing apricots and pert asparagus… But then you blink, it’s 10:20 a.m. and you’re fighting off a Palm Beach housewife for the last tin of imported Italian tomatoes.

That’s the other unfortunate side effect of going in person to a normal supermarket. The sheer quantities that we buy are unfathomable for the everyday shopper. I’ve had snarky remarks over kale, and cashiers wonder aloud what on earth I’m planning with so much cucumber. Buying milk and eggs for 24 people is a trolley-full on its own, and I always feel incredibly guilty about emptying the shelves of certain items — particularly when I’ve got 20 of the same already in my cart. So more often than not, I’ll leave just the last one sitting there as a goodwill gesture to the poor person who’s coming after me.

Then we head to the cashier. I’ve gotta say thank you, America, and your bag packers. For the sole chef shopping, it’s a godsend. Europe, you’re a nightmare, particularly when there’s an overzealous cashier whose personal mission is to swipe your shopping cart as fast as humanly possible. They probably get a kick out of watching me sprint to the bagging end, trying to catch romaine and raspberries before they tumble off the conveyer belt.

Buying milk and eggs for 24 people is a trolley-full on its own, and I always feel incredibly guilty about emptying the shelves of certain items.

And then I turn into a professional trolley wrangler. I can manage two at a time easy, one in front and one behind, much to the bemusement of fellow shoppers. Out the door and across the road to where (ideally) the crew car is waiting. The wrestling to collapse the back seats (those numbered straps are never correct, I swear), reverse stacking everything in (tins on the bottoms, tomatoes on the top), and then cranking the A/C fan in attempt to turn the Renault Clio into a makeshift refrigerated van for the 20-minute drive home.

Or you’ve had to call a taxi, and even when you don’t need to wait, by George are you treated to some cracking displays from the locals. A chain-smoking, tracksuit-wearing, mini-bus driving skinhead Gibraltarian, a cheery Bahamian blasting gospel and air conditioning. This very week in Juneau, Alaska, after 3.5 hours of sourcing the most depressing quality produce, the sous chef and I had our taxi driver rant and rave to us about the global economy, and then proceed to sing us a song that he wrote about it, titled “Chinese Apple Pie.” I wish I could remember the lyrics, but I think the whole experience was so traumatic I’ve blocked it out as I stressed about the severe lack of decent lettuce on the final frontier.

Let’s hope the car can pull up close to the vessel, as you’ve loaded those Carrefour bags rather heavily. The crew forms “the chain” and everything is unceremoniously dumped in the galley/crew corridor. Unpacking is another form of hell as the engineers look on, concerned as the fridge and freezer doors stay open for far too long.

Look, I could rant for ages about it, but at the end of the day, there truly is no better feeling than having the fridge brimming with fresh produce and the larder stocked with specialty goodies. Just block out the thought that you’re going to have to do the whole ordeal over again in 10 days.

The Ideal Provisioning Lunch

iStock/marcomayer

If possible, the day before, whip up a magic mystery soup with all the dregs in your fridge: leek and potato, or mixed roast veg with a lot of chili flakes usually does the trick. Then, at the supermarket, collect cold cuts, bags of salad (yes, with the little sachets of dressing), cheese, dips like hummus and guac, and loaves of fresh bread (extra points for already sliced). For the ultimate jackpot, hit up the hot counter at the deli and grab a few bags of fried chicken. Be sure to put this all through the till last and keep it in a separate bag so when you unload, it’s easy to find. Back at the boat, unpack the bag directly onto your platters, reheat the soup, and ta-da! You have the ultimate provisioning lunch.

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

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