A request came in for a last-minute gig, one unlike any I’ve done before. The clients needed someone ASAP. It’s a short-term position, with an undefined end date. The job entails significantly more than regular yacht chef duties (including some minor medical stuff) and is not, in fact, even on a yacht. Further, I’m responsible for my own travel expenses and all provisioning costs come out of my own pocket. This is an unpaid position, effective almost immediately.
Of course, I say yes.
After years of treating charter guests like family, I’m flipping the script and treating family like charter guests. Dad is the principal charterer, Mom is his VIP. The principal is between hospital visits for the treatment of a kidney-bean-sized kidney stone. The VIP has Alzheimer’s and dementia. Like the rest of us, the pandemic has taken a mental toll on them.
When I cook for families on charter, I imagine what my own family would be like on board. My four siblings, their partners and children, and my 80-something-year-old parents would be a hectic trip. I imagine what our preference sheet would look like: lots of ruffled potato chips with a selection of dips. No onion in anything, but lots of raw onion on the side for my dad. We love onion dip. My sister will pick anything green out of anything. She’s been doing it for over 40 years, don’t sweat it.
I pack my knives, four loaves of homemade bread, a kitchen scale, sourdough starter, and heavy sweaters.
As soon as I arrive but before I can begin preparing even toast, the kitchen needs detailing. Old people have a different relationship with expiry dates, as in they’re optional. Based on the amount of moldy and out-of-date food I find in the fridge, I surmise that my parents have otherworldly gut health. The biodiversity of their intestinal flora could provide the basis for Nobel-worthy scientific inquiry. I quickly understand the importance of indicating years as part expiry dates. The most ancient artifact is older than the average TikTok user and can be measured in decades.
Like most people, the VIP is not happy about her cheese being moved or discarded. My siblings assure me that Mom’s dementia has matured enough that she won’t remember what she had, but I beg to differ. I’m not throwing shade, it’s a legit biohazard when we’re throwing birthday parties for milk that has been in the fridge for a year. I learned with previous employers to discard anything in which the package doesn’t have a web address or UPC code. I fill giant black bin bags and hide them until my brother-in-law takes them to the dump.
Upon his release from the hospital, Dad felt his stomach was a little wonky. We were barraged with a Nor’easter (weather I’ve never had to deal with on charter), so I decided something warm and hearty, like mushroom bourguignon, would be warm and comforting. Dad had two helpings. I’d planned for a broccoli green curry soup the next night, but around 3 p.m. I had a request for pizza. It’s cool, I brought my own yeast with me.
That’s pretty much all it took to get the principal charterer accustomed to having his own personal chef. The following morning, as he asked for his orange juice, he put in his dinner order. “I’d like spaghetti tonight. Don’t go to any trouble, you don’t have to make the pasta yourself.” Thanks, Dad, that’s mighty nice of you.
You see, joke’s on Dad. I’m serving him herb frittata, escarole with cannellini beans and brown rice, shiitake-lentil pot pies, and butternut lasagna. He gobbles it up, asking for seconds. What he doesn’t realize is I’m not giving him any meat. Okay…for Sunday brunch, he got some just-barely-unexpired, crappy store-brand bacon that I cooked from the fridge. And there was some anchovy in the puttanesca. But other than that, and a nightly tub of ice cream, my meat-and-potatoes father, under my culinary care, is practically plant-based.
The principal charterer had some great feedback regarding my spinach broccoli soup with coconut and lemongrass: he thought it would be great with cheese on top. The VIP guest reminded him that we had toasted cheese on the side. Thanks for having my back, Ma.
I’ve spent decades of my life cooking and serving people. It seems only natural to turn my skillset toward the people who tried for so long to get me to set the table or eat my peas.
My oldest sister makes the three-hour round trip to get in on a telehealth visit. As soon as the doctor gets off the call, I slide a plate of French toast in front of my dad. He’d requested it in the same breath that he wished me sweet dreams the night before.
My sister looks on in awe. “Do you guys eat like this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Every day when she’s here?” I can’t tell if the horror in her voice comes from calorie count or having to meet these new standards. Before pandemic, my 50-something-year-old attorney sister had cooked two dinners in her entire life. She has nothing to fear; I’ve filled the freezer with meals.
I’m not showing off to my parents — that happened when I catered my seven-months-post-elopement wedding reception and served my extended Italian family not lasagna, but a selection of what I’d just learned in culinary school in Thailand. That wasn’t as popular as I’d expected. This is quiet, humble food; food that sustains when the sun sets before the five o’clock news. This is nightly dining, in the dusky hours of a hard year in my parents’ life; when I have them to myself, when they can benefit from decades of my profession experience. As we eat shiitake pot pie or dip roasted purple potatoes in gruyère fondue, they can see that although I made a lot of messes (both culinary and otherwise) when I was young, they raised a daughter who eats her vegetables. But also, she’ll drop everything to fly to them to literally clean their wounds and feed them soup — just like they did for me long ago. I’ve been training my whole life for this.
Broccoli Spinach Soup with a Thai Twist
> 2 Tbsp coconut oil
> 2 Tbsp green curry paste or more, to taste
> 1 small shallot
> 2 Tbsp of chopped ginger
> 20 oz package of frozen broccoli, thawed
> 10 oz package of frozen spinach, thawed
> 1 can coconut milk
> 4 cups of water or stock
> 2 Tbsp each of fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar, or more, to taste
Spoon coconut oil in a medium stock pot over medium high heat. Add curry paste. Mush it around a bit, then add shallot and ginger. Lower heat slightly and sauté for a minute until they just start to soften. Pour water or stock in, then add broccoli. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then add spinach and coconut milk. Let simmer 10 more minutes or until all veggies are soft. Add more water if necessary. When veggies are still bright green but soft, remove from heat. Purée. Return to pot and add fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar; adding more to taste.
Options: You can serve this with cheese on top, but honestly, I don’t know why. I’d recommend a swirl of coconut cream. If you’re not making this for old people, I’d jack up the heat with peppers or hot sauce.
This column originally ran in the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.