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Once a chef, always a chef is how the saying goes.
In those rare moments that as a chef, you want to experience cuisine and remember the moment you decided to become a chef, might I suggest a foodie vacation?
Well, we all have busy schedules. When the yacht is in dry dock and you suddenly find that you will have a month off, why not go explore other cuisines or revisit the ones that you are so fond of or that persuaded you to travel down the path to the white coat and toque.
It was not my first idea when I decided to go. Not at all. I had an agenda. Fancy restaurants were not on it.
So, I suddenly found myself with a few weeks off while the yacht was in the paint shed for maintenance. Even when the yacht is at anchor, I am not the only one wishing to know what it would be like to be in those restaurants with the glitzy lights and see how those chefs prepare and present cuisine.
You might have to ask yourself, am I getting too stale as a chef? Is my cuisine repetitive? Do I really offer variety in what I decide to provision onboard and finally, are my plating and cooking techniques up to par with what is changing in food these days? Every answer I came up with was not what I liked to admit.
It’s not a one-time deal. You just don’t get the certificate and walk away. We have to constantly challenge ourselves to do better, to learn more, to plate better than before, to stay inspired and be creative.
There is nothing better than getting off the yacht to discover how someone else does things whether it be a simple family restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall diner or a five star hotel. Sure, being creative zaps us mentally and physically.
We put our hearts into cooking. So take that foodie vacation we so often read about. That is what I did. Glad I did too. I don’t want to be known as a chef when I step into someone else’s territory. I want to see and experience how they do things their way so this is what I did.
I walked into a five star restaurant with a menu that read like the who’s who of the culinary world. It was located overseas in a five star hotel with three star Michelin chef at the helm. That says a lot right there. My first thought was, why are there not a lot of these in the U.S.?
Oh yeah, that’s right, there are, but they are on land, far away from me. So I made the effort to show up.
When I was seated, I was approached by five waiters. One was for the water, the other for the wine and the other for the menu and not sure about the others. Course after tasty course was brought out even though I requested two of the most innovative dishes the chef had. That was the wrong thing to request. They immediately knew what I did for a living.
Word of advice: Don’t go into a restaurant thinking you will change the way they do things. It doesn’t work.
I don’t like to be brought out a tasting menu. I don’t like five or 7 or 12 course meals. When I go to a restaurant, I want the best tasting dish, the most authentic food for the type of restaurant I am eating at, and the best innovative dish that they have that shows plating aptitude coupled with creativity. I don’t like gimmicky.
To serve dinner using a parcheesi board with round marbles is not my idea of a fine dining menu. That does not scream creativity. In one particular restaurant, a lady got upset because the menu was too difficult to figure out. Building blocks were used in this menu. Save the building blocks for the babies at home and either write it out or type it out if you are a chef or restaurant owner.
Although the second restaurant I went to which was also five star was exactly this, I still don’t want my food on floating flower petals, bricks, logs, bark or anything that says it is not a traditional plate. Call me old fashioned but it takes away from the chef’s ability to perform on something round and hard like porcelain. It’s nothing but gimmicks, to say, you do it different.
That was the only downside to my trip to several different countries on vacation. Their food really inspired me to change the way I was approaching my culinary ability. The French have a way of extracting the flavor from foods that other culinary trained chefs don’t do. The British have come a long way and London is now considered a utopia of the culinary world.
Mind you, it’s not every restaurant but a few choice ones we as chefs can learn from. I was even taken into the kitchen to meet these kings of the culinary world. Talk about a humbling experience. I felt like a student. Actually, there were about 30 apprentices in there as well. Just show me where to stand in line.
What I learned on my vacation, was that my portions have become larger than they should be, my plating skills need some improvement, and my ideas for food pairings could certainly be brought up to a new level.
We have to be able to adapt to new and more innovative ways of cooking and presentation. But we have to remember that flavor is at the forefront. Never forget why people eat the food, it’s for the flavor.
Unfortunately, we become hurried, we become bored, our creativity goes out the window and we burn out from repeated charter after charter or private guest after private guest. You might remember the blank space you felt as you searched your mind for a dish to serve only to come up with a clean slate in your head.
As the chef onboard, you have to look at other ways to stay creative when you don’t go ashore much or you are so booked solid that you can’t see those creative ideas as you walk past the windows of the Boulanger or the patisserie or Epicure In France.
You need to get out and see how others do it. Eat at a bistro and taste the food. Go to a traditional bistro and order a cassoulet.
Take in some creative classes if you can. Ask to go back to the heart of the operation and see how they do it. The worst thing they could tell you is no, leave, don’t ever come back, or worse, invite you back and meet them when you have spinach in your teeth.
So take that food vacation and be sure to throw in a couple of very fancy five star restaurants to keep you up to date on the food trends and what pairs with what so that when you go back to the yacht, you can show a new skill set.
Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.