Everyone in yachting gets criticized at some point. You can’t be in this profession — or any other for that matter — and not encounter it.
Most often, it’s crew throwing criticism at other crew. But sometimes, a guest or owner criticizes us, and that hurts. These are the people we work to please. And because we put so much of ourselves in what we do onboard, we tend to take these criticisms personally.
When a guest or owner throws a critical punch our way, we have to take it in stride. Don’t sulk, make a face, or respond verbally. Instead, smile to let them know you get it. Understand that your way is not the way they want it. It’s not personal; it’s business. So listen, and adjust.
I once worked for an owner who meddled in everything, from going into the engine room to creating chaos to the galley. He even told me I should quit yachting and go sell my pies at Walmart. (I probably should have; I would be rich by now if I had.)
That comment came from a single individual who had control issues; criticizing the crew was at the top of his to-do list every day he was onboard.
Maybe people like this have to ﬁnd fault with others to feel important. Maybe they had a bad day. Or maybe they just don’t know how to communicate; criticism is all they know. It could be that’s all they got growing up so they don’t know how to feel secure with praise.
The point is, there’s a lot of stuff coming through a piece of criticism. We can’t take it personally. What we can do is move through it. From criticism, we learn how the guest or owner wants something done. So we adjust. Yes, it would be better if they could communicate it in a less hostile way, but remember, they might not know how.
When the criticism starts, step back, realize it might not be you, and adjust.
I have always believed that it is in our best interests as chefs to find out exactly what types of food our guests or owners like and how they like it prepared. If you don’t know this, you set yourself up for failure and, most likely, criticism.
Suppose the criticism was about the way you cooked a piece of meat. If you were in a restaurant and didn’t like the way the meat was cooked, you would send it back and another would be brought to you the way you asked. It’s the same thing on a yacht.
So why is it when we are confronted with the dissatisfaction from the owner over the food we have cooked, we take it personally? It’s because we think as chefs that our food should be perfect. We take pride in our work and the food on that plate is a direct expression of our experience and skill as a professional chef.
Maybe the oven is not quite right. Maybe the meat was not the best. Maybe nothing you do will satisfy the grumpy owner today. I have worked for those owners, too. It is not easy. Again, don’t take it personally.
These scenes are more frequent when the chef has to go through the chain of command to reach the owner. Generally, yacht owners are pleasant and want to know the person preparing their meals. It is a tremendous benefit to get out of the galley and talk to the guest or owner who had a problem with your food.
The biggest challenge for chefs is when one guest complains about the dish while the others have been served. If you can alter the meal to get it back to the person in 3 minutes, then do what you can to alter it. If you can’t, apprise them of the time window when a new one will be ready. If you can’t remake it, have a back up ready.
I recently had an owner announce he wanted lamb for dinner. That was it; the conversation was over. I had to guess what kind of lamb he wanted. I prepped two meals that night. I made lamb stew and had seasoned lamb loin chops ready to go.
Turned out he didn’t want the stew but was completely happy with the lamb loin chops. Sometimes, that’s what it takes. And I had to remember that it wasn’t my stew, it was his preference. After doing this for 20 years, I’ve learned not to take it personally.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.