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One chef’s guide to working well with others

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My most recent job-hunting experience has led me to write this column on how chefs new to a vessel can get along with others, whether it be the owner or established crew. 

It wasn’t the first time I had a conflict with someone onboard. usually, it’s the crew, especially the chief stew.
The reason I have had issues is that usually they lack the experience I have. Of course, they will continue to learn and I am not the end all of chefs, not by a long shot. But when a member of the interior crew tells me what plate to use, I have a problem with that. I have a pretty good idea how my food should look when it’s presented.
There is a hierarchy in place when you sign on, so it’s important to learn what that is quickly and who is at the top of the rank. What most interior crew often forget, though, is that chefs don’t tell them how to do their jobs. Why do they want to tell us how to do ours?
I have been a chief stew and chef for more than 20 years. In that time, I’ve also been a butler ashore and an interior manager, so I can understand how some interior crew might feel when I am hired.
So how does an experienced chef perform his/her duties fully when faced with adversity from a crew member who has been with the employer a long time and feels threatened?
It just happened with me not too long ago. Upon joining a new vessel, the chief stew took me aside and told me the owner of the yacht took very good care of her and that she intended on it staying that way. I didn’t want her job, rather only to do mine. But she didn’t let me. She ordered the food and gave me no access to the guests. That, of course, caused problems for me that I was responsible for.
I have to assume our conflict stemmed from her fear of losing control. Most yachts have protocols in place, including the level of responsibility for the chef, but there has to be some leeway for chefs to do their jobs.
So how does a new or freelance chef find their place in an already established crew?
First, if there is someone you don’t get along with onboard, realize that it is probably because they exude the same not-nice characteristics you might have. Do not act the same way. Pay attention to how their actions affect your reactions.
Second, if you have years of employment in the industry, be prepared when joining a younger and less experienced crew. Better yet, take the time to find a good fit. Look for a yacht that has roughly the same age crew as you.
And interview the captain and chief stew as hard as they interview you. You don’t have to take a job unless you feel absolutely comfortable in their abilities and you know you will get along great.
Don’t put yourself in a situation where you will ultimately fail.
Third, firmly request that the chef do the provisioning based on the preference sheets. If there are no preference sheets, firmly request interactions with the guests to find out what it is they really want. Experienced chefs have been there, done that, and probably know the suppliers in a given port as well as the locals.
Here are just a few things I’ve re-learned lately while considering a new position on a yacht:
1. Learn the reputation of the yacht, and how the crew are treated by the owner.
2. How many chefs has the yacht had in the past year? Less than three, you can excuse that to “not a good fit”; more than three in a year, run away and don’t look back.
3. Consider the age of the crew and how you might fit in.
4. Get in writing what is expected of you as the chef and as a crew member, including the behaviors and do’s and don’ts of the yacht. If there is no job description or employment manual, this could simply be a string of emails. You can only be successful if you know what is expected of you.
5. Finally, remember to sit down with the crew and get to know them. Kill them with kindness. The world does not revolve around the chef. We are just part of the team that revolves around the yacht.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 20 years. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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