Career Advice

Building a Professional Relationship with the Chef

1 April 2020 By Kylie O'Brien
Chef adds garnish to plate of food.

Kylie O’Brien has worked on some of the world’s most magnificent vessels with amazing people for more than 13 years. A graduate of The Australian College of Applied Psychology, she is the author of Crew Wanted, The Stewardess Bible, The Chief Stewardess Bible, The Inside Job, and has been a monthly contributor to Dockwalk magazine for more than five years.

It has been well documented that the working life on board a superyacht can be a struggle at times. Throughout my long yachting career, it most definitely had its ups and downs.

While social isolation, work-related stress, low crew morale, and illegal substance abuse are all contributing factors that add to the turbulence on board, they are not the only facets that hinder the crew’s flow. In my experience, I found that other factors such as egocentric behavior, mental illness, personal unhappiness, and professional competitiveness also affected how the crew worked together as a team.

The working relationship between the chief stewardess and the head chef is one of the most crucial team dynamics aboard any superyacht. Let’s explore the working relationship between the two from both perspectives.

While social isolation, work-related stress, low crew morale, and illegal substance abuse are all contributing factors that add to the turbulence on board, they are not the only facets that hinder the crew’s flow.

The Chief Stewardess’s Story

With a career spanning more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the finest chefs in the world. Equally, I have worked with some pompous and self-absorbed individuals whose massive egos surpassed their culinary skills, which ultimately left a poor taste in everyone’s mouth.

My professional career in the hospitality industry began while taking a two-year sabbatical in the majestic mountains of Nikko, Japan. While working in the hotel, I was fascinated with the chef’s culinary skills, along with their discipline and unwavering passion for their profession. The apprentices would work with the master chef for about six years, preparing sushi rice and cutting up vegetables. The master chef would bark orders at the apprentices, who would diligently oblige. I was in awe and humbled by their respect for the master chef.

After finishing university, I worked in five-star hotels and the western kitchens were not too dissimilar to that of the Japanese. Once again, I witnessed hard work, discipline, amazing culinary skills, and a passion for their profession. This led to some general observations about the profession:

  • Chefs cook to nurture people.
  • Chefs are very creative people.
  • Chefs tend to be perfectionists, food lovers, as well as masters of aromas, sound, textures, and techniques.

What I did not see in the hotel world was the darker side of the chef’s profession (as we all went home at the end of the day). The gloomier side is that some chefs simply cannot stand the pressure of the job. But the hidden stress has nowhere to hide when you’re on board, and alcohol is often the chosen tool to help bury their worries.

In one example, verbal abuse was an issue. On a few occasions, I had to help the chef out of the galley (with him begging me not to tell the captain about his state) because he was unfit for work. Lack of communication and respect for the stewardesses was also an issue that had to be addressed on numerous occasions. Knowing that we all have personal struggles, it’s important to realize that sometimes, people can just be having a bad day and do not intend to be unpleasant. My basic principles of how to have a professional and peaceful relationship with the chef on board are:

  • Don’t ever take it personally (I know that is a hard one to accept sometimes —  especially when the anger is directed at you).
  • Communication is king; please do not shoot the messenger.
  • Have a clear and common goal by planning as much as possible.
  • Build strong interpersonal relationships. This point includes displaying empathy, compassion, and a general willingness to help your colleague.
  • Have fun: laughter always relieves stress.
Guests enjoying a meal on deck
iStock/Aja Koska

The Chef’s Story

To balance this article out, I posted the same question to a chefs’ forum and received an overwhelming response. Here are some of my favorite responses to my post:

Lucy simply says, “Respect.”

Richard suggested that it is all about teamwork: “I’m a chef. I don’t think there is a challenge here — be respectful and [a] team player and everything will be fine. Do the opposite and your life will be hell on [earth], simple as that, but I think that applies for every single job.… Chefs do a big part of the job [to please] people, but as I said before, I'm nothing without a nice team or suggestions from my team.”

Boundaries came up quite a lot, as Sez says: “Agreed. Saying thank you always goes a long way. Don’t touch a chef’s knives and don’t disrespect the space we work in. When the guidelines are set, it’s not hard to respect each other.”

Many chefs kept on reiterating the importance of communication, which we all know is king, but I found this eloquent response from Jeaun-Mari to be so heart-warming: “Positive communication, emotional intelligence, professional and intellectual etiquette. Make an effort to observe, attune, and relate to other thoughts. Make decisions on reality and not on what should happen. Collaborate and understand/respect colleague’s values or goals. Don’t put a label on anyone from the get-go either!”

We are all on the same team wanting the same things from each other: respect, communication, boundaries, and teamwork, all of which are forgotten when the crew gets tired and has no patience for the other person’s point of view.

Lastly, nothing sums up this article more perfectly than this insight from the late Henry Ford: “Teamwork. Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

This column originally ran in the April 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


More from Dockwalk