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Work with chef to make mealtimes stress and drama free

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On a yacht, most of the activity and memories for guests are centered around food and mealtimes, so it’s no wonder that those moments can be the most stressful for the crew onboard.

There is a special bond between the chef and stews on a yacht. They rely on us to deliver their food to the table at its best, and also to keep them informed about critical information about what’s happening at the table: which guests finish all the food on their plate (or more importantly, which do not), any comments that are made, and how much the food is enjoyed.

A great deal of preparation goes into each meal. Once the guests’ preferences are determined, menus are created and the chef has a visual concept of how to plate each meal. Usually they know how they can best showcase the food, and usually will let you know which china set to use. If they don’t, you should discuss this together. Very often, colorful decorative dinnerware is not the best background for their design, and the chef may prefer a larger plain white plate to serve the main course on. So feel free to set the table for atmosphere (perhaps in theme) and use the more decorative plates for one of the other courses to maintain the ambiance.

Once the dishes are chosen, consult with the chef to choose the service pieces, underliners, and side plates for each course on the menu, and then plan ahead of time for condiments, sauces, and anything else that will go with each course. I like to have this done an hour or two ahead of time, if possible, to avoid rushing around in the last minutes before service begins.

Multiple conditions onboard can present service limitations. For instance, serving food at the right temperature is an urgent concern for good service, and depending on how far the food has to be carried, it may be challenging to get the food to the table on time. Some foods, such as steaks, continue to cook once they are removed from the heat, so you may have to hustle.

In addition, some tables do not allow full walk-around service making it impossible to provide “correct” service.

But once the table is set and service is under way, nothing should detract from the guests’ enjoyment of the food. Plan ahead to avoid creating awkward moments that draw attention to you, such as forgetting to put out the proper condiments for each course or struggling to reach across a table to set down plates. This takes the focus away from the pleasure of the meal. Serving food quickly, efficiently and consistently smoothly is the ultimate goal.

Here are some tips on how to work better with the chef to guarantee smooth service:

  • As a general principle, do not sample, take, or eat anything in the chef’s fridge unless you know it is OK. Creating menus and provisioning is detailed work. It’s likely that every item in the refrigerator has been purchased for a specific menu, and a missing ingredient could seriously disrupt meal preparation. Some items cannot be substituted, and you may have to use your personal time to go find a suitable replacement for that irresistible morsel.
  • Meal prep takes a great deal of concentration and focus, and once it has begun, don’t interrupt unnecessarily. Keep out of the immediate work area, and if the chef is in “serious” mode, don’t disrupt with idle chit chat or carry on with other crew in the work zone. Be aware of the vibe and the need for physical and emotional space. It might be best to stay out of the galley, but at the same time reassure the chef that you are aware of the guests’ whereabouts and situation and that you haven’t become distracted or lost track of time.
  • Every minute counts, and the closer it gets to meal time, the more important alertness becomes. If a meal has to be delayed (for example, if you can’t get the guests to the table), the stress level for the chef goes up. A little glitch like this can create a domino effect, so be respectful of the increased level of concentration the chef needs. Stay on track with service progression and be standing by ready to go the moment the guests are seated, the water, wine and bread are served, and the chef gives you the signal.

It can feel awkward telling guests it is time to be seated. They may be in the midst of a lively conversation that you hate to interrupt, but it is important to take control of the situation so that the food can be served at its best. In addition, tell the chef if someone gets up and leaves the table for some reason, such as to take a phone call. Service may have to be delayed until everyone is at the table.

  • When plating begins, don’t stand too close or crowd the chef as they work. There is often an invisible line you should not cross. You could get hurt or cause an accident. If a mistake is made that can’t be fixed, an entire plate could be ruined, and often there won’t be any extra food to start over. This can be distressing for the chef and will diminish your ability to concentrate on providing good service.
  • Wait for the chef to give you the go-ahead that the design is complete, all garnishes are in place, and the plates are ready to go. Ask how the plates should be oriented in front of diners, and be sure you know which ones are meant for the host and hostess. Pay attention as you pick them up so they are set down in the correct order at the table. (Remember, serve from the left and clear from the right. Drinks are served and cleared from the right.)
  • When you go to the table, be sure you understand how to describe the meal correctly. Have an understanding of the main flavor components, attributes and characteristics of each dish that the chef prepares and work on correct pronunciation.
  • After the food is served, the chef needs to know the dining pace at the table. Make sure you understand how the chef wants you to communicate and relay this information so each course is presented at its best. It is helpful to let them know when diners are halfway through each course.

Try to go to the table two or three times per course. You don’t have to say anything, but always scan the table as you refill water and wine to see how things are going. Look at the diners in case someone is trying to catch your eye to ask for something.

  • Always tell the chef when you are getting ready to clear so there is time to mentally switch gears and organize for the next course. There will be times when your timing is off and as you go to check on guests, they unexpectedly ask you to clear. In this case, let the chef know as soon as possible and try to buy some time to allow the chef to adjust the pace in the galley. You could refill glasses again, straighten up your service area or check the table for anything out of place.

Guests may wonder why the next course is taking so long, but just seeing you in the area will reassure them that you are conscientious about doing everything to make the meal a success.

Food is a crucial aspect of any visit to a yacht. Be aware of how important this part of their trip is. Chefs are artistic, creative people who are passionate about their food and creations and who are under a lot of pressure a lot of the time. This combination could spell the recipe for a wonderful experience or a disaster.

Learning how to work closely with the chef to make mealtimes a success could provide great opportunities to gain service and culinary skills and provide the base for a wonderful friendship.

Alene Keenan has been a yacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT and offers customized onboard interior training and consulting through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Order her self-published book “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht” from Amazon.com or directly from Create Space at www.createspace.com/5377000.  Comments are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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One thought on “Work with chef to make mealtimes stress and drama free

  1. Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson CCC, CEPC

    Regarding Alene Keenan’s recent column about working with the chef [“Stew is a key part to chef’s perfect meal,” page C1, August issue], I can honestly say she is absolutely correct and totally understands what it takes to work alongside chefs on yachts. It is a team effort for everyone on board.
    Excellent article, Alene. Thank you for this.

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