Picky Eaters: the Challenge of Cooking for Crew

29 January 2009 By Victoria Allman, By Di Thompson

The chef stood over the chopping board, rhythmically slicing tomatoes. Basil the color of emeralds and fresh mozzarella lined the platter prepared to please the stew on the South Beach Diet. Chicken breasts roasted in the oven for the deckie who would only eat protein. Cream of mushroom soup simmered on the stove – a special request from the engineer. It was twenty minutes until the crew lunch.

The captain breezed through the galley on his way to the office. “The new stewardess I hired just came aboard.” He barely broke stride. “Did I tell you she’s a vegan?” He was out the door before the knife hit the cutting board.

It’s common on the high seas to have an owner or charter guests who have special dietary needs or are picky about what they eat. That’s all well and good – they want to enjoy their food and pay very good money for the privilege. However, when the crew members have eating peculiarities and allergies, the chef needs to have a healthy sense of humor and an enormous culinary repertoire.

How can you prepare three meals a day, seven days a week, for a crew of up to 12 people who have very different diets, likes and dislikes? The answer was you can’t. It’s not practical to think that every single thing you cook will be loved by everyone.

The secret is to offer variety. It’s all about the assortment of dishes you put on the table. Somewhere in there will be the one perfect recipe each crewmember will love.

Here are some tips on coping with dietary diversity from two chefs who have cooked it all.

  1. Each day at lunch, offer a green salad, a grain, a main course and a fruit salad. If the main course is meat, and the stew is vegan, she can have the salads. If the captain doesn’t like salads, then he can tuck into the beef curry. If all else fails, there’s always the leftover pancetta and mushroom pasta from the night before. Today’s meal might not be the mate’s favorites but tomorrow there will be five new options for him.
  2. Monday, cook Asian. Tuesday, move to Mexico. Wednesday is a trip to Greece. Thursday, go Indian and Friday is Italian-American night. Each of these cuisines offer a rich menu of choices for both meat and veggie-lovers. (Hungarian, not so much.)
  3. As any chef or gourmet foodie will tell you, there is nothing like the smell of market-fresh produce to stir the senses. From the greenest of greens to deep purple beetroots and golden yellow corn on the cob, fresh food is our connection to the earth via the stomach. Even with the fussiest of diets, you usually cannot go wrong with vegetables in season and delicious summer fruits from the market.
  4. As a caring, sharing chef, have everyone on the crew sit down and discuss their favorite foods and what they absolutely do not like. But you have an ulterior motive: This is usually when the truth comes out and you discover that most of the allergies and dietary phobias are really leftover childhood memories from the time when they were told if they didn’t finish everything on their plate, there would be no dessert. See if you can get them to revisit the scene of the crime – they may find their tastes have changed.
  5. Need a recipe for gluten-free cookies? Meatless chili? What about eggless, sugar-free citrus cake? Not in any of the many cookbooks you have on board? Check out It has hundreds of creative recipes posted to satisfy a hungry – and picky – crew. And it’s just one of dozens of online recipe resources.

If you have the right attitude, variety can work for both chef and the crew. Coming from restaurants, where a chef cooks the same 20 menu items over and over, yachting provides an awesome opportunity to learn new things.