Two weeks ago, Chef Stuart was just getting settled into his new job aboard the 165-foot (50m) M/Y Arianna, having his first full day in the galley. A week later, he would win his category in the 13th annual Concours des Chefs during the Antigua Charter Yacht Show.
“I don’t know how I won it, really,” Stuart said, noting that he had recently taken a two-year break from yachting.
After last year’s multiple-item buffet theme, the judges toned this year’s competition down to embraced a healthy food theme, encouraging chefs in three yacht-size categories to turn fresh Caribbean ingredients into five-star-quality fare.
And also unlike last year, the winning chefs were not overly stressed about the competition. While preparing multiple dishes for last year’s buffet kept winning chefs up all night, this year’s winners simply did what they always do best.
“The theme was healthy food, and that was good because that’s our protocol anywhere we go,” said Chef Jerry Pond of the 130-foot Westport M/Y Arioso, who won the category of yachts 100-159 feet. He won second in this category last year. “The roasted yam salad is a staple; we serve it on every charter we do.”
“It’s really the same as all the dishes I make,” said Chef Toni Leslie of S/Y Inukshuk, who won among yachts less than 100 feet. “I chop and change until the last minute. It’s pointless taking all that time to do a whole lot of planning because, realistically, I can’t do a lot of planning. We sail all day and I cook only when we’re done for the day.”
The winners span the globe from London to South Africa to South Florida. Here’s a taste of who they are and what they served.
Chef Stuart, M/Y Arianna
Starter: A Lobster Tasting Plate with lobster remoulade, lobster bisque and lobster croque monsieur
Main: Red Snapper with salt-cod acras and sauce chien, red pepper puree, pickled scallions and sweet potato
Dessert: Pineapple financier, coconut pannacotta, moscavado sugar and nutmeg ice cream with salted nutmeg crunch and pina colada espuma
Stuart has been cooking since he was 14. He served in the army in the UK before heading off to college and then working in five-star hotels in London. He joined yachting in 2001 where he first worked on a busy charter yacht. The yachts after that, though, were mostly private.
In 2010, he took some time off to travel, overseeing an orange crop in Ibiza and cooking for private clients between trips.
“I needed a break from cooking; not the working, but the cooking,” he said, preparing for a lunch on Friday. “Traveling changes everything. It changes your attitude. You think if you stop cooking, the world will end.”
But it doesn’t. He continued to cook, but in limited jobs, over the past two years. He cooked his last non-yachting meal in August for former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Then he joined Arianna on Nov. 22, and the yacht’s managers entered him in the Concours des Chefs the next day.
“I asked them if it was an extension of the job interview,” he said with a chuckle. “It was time to come back into something structured. I like the dynamic of a crew. And this is a perfectly planned kitchen. I can see the girls through there and there’s always someone in the crew mess over there. There are always people around.”
Chef Jerry Pond, M/Y Arioso
Starter: Roasted Yam Salad (yams, grilled onion, sauteed arugula, gorgonzola vinaigrette)
Main: Grilled Caribbean Lobster with a jerk seasoning, chilled quinoa salad (roasted corn, sweet peppers, cucumber, fresh thyme) topped with scallion and mint puree
Dessert: Coconut Bavarois, a bittersweet chocolate coconut husk with fruit and mango coulis
Pond calls himself the non-yachtie yachtie. With a career in bakeries — including Storks in South Florida, which he helped set up in the mid-1990s — he’s only worked with one yachting family. At first he stepped in for a week to help a friend, then that turned into a month, and eventually the season. Now, each season he talks to the captain and decides to stay a little longer.
“Seven-and-a-half years later, here we are,” he said, flashing his ever-present smile.
He enjoys the camaraderie with his fellow crew on Arioso, and each season offers the opportunity to work on something new. This winter, it’s bar snacks, or as Pond calls them “funky nibbles.”
Being a charter chef is “a great environment for cooking,” he said. “There’s really no budget, you have a captive audience and you’re never feeding more than 15-16 people at a time. … The best day in yachting is a playground; on the worst day, you’re just cooking, which still isn’t bad.”
Take his competition menu, for example. Besides the staple roasted yam salad, he served grilled lobster with a side quinoa salad, which he prefers cold to enhance the nutty flavor. Dessert — his forte — was a coconut “husk” he made by dipping a balloon in tempered dark chocolate and toasted desiccated coconut. Once cooled, he removed the balloon and filled it with fresh fruit and a mango coulis.
“We did what we did within the parameters of the contest,” he said. “We just produced good tasting, good looking product.”
The yacht has several months of downtime in Ft. Lauderdale each year so he gets to go home at night, reconnect with friends, play with his dogs. And that keeps him excited about the next season.
Chef Toni Leslie, S/Y Inukshuk
Cocktail (dubbed wagwan, a local greeting): Lemongrass-infused rum, lime, pineapple, honey and a hint of coconut
Starter: Chili and tamarind seared beef sashimi with sticky honey pineapple and a side of green papaya, cucumber and carrot salad
Main: Sea salt & ginger red snapper in banana leaves with avocado salsa and a side of sticky rice
Dessert: Vanilla and lemongrass baked yogurt with drunken bananas
Like her fellow contest winners, Leslie said she didn’t spend a great deal of time planning her menu for the contest. She relied on her favorite flavors, including tamarind and lemongrass, to cook simple, fresh dishes that her guests always enjoy.
And she rounded out her menu with a newsletter detailing the nutritional impact of most of the ingredients.
For her starter, she decided on beef sashimi because she was serving fish as the main, and noted that 12 cuts of beef are healthier than chicken thighs.
None of her dishes were cooked with oil or salt, and the only sugar was what naturally came in the ingredients she chose (plus a little in the drunken bananas).
The banana leaves in the main dish gave the fish a slightly smoky flavor, and the chilled avocado salsa rounded out the experience with the meal.
“I didn’t want everything hot; it’s too heavy,” she said.
The dessert she bakes often and said baking traditional yogurt comes out like a creme caramel once a little vanilla is mixed in. The lemongrass simply rests on top, seeping its flavor into the top layer.
Just three years in yachting, Leslie’s culinary training came through years working with her father in her family’s restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa.
“I grew up in my dad’s kitchen,” she said. “He was my school.”
The contest was limited to 10 yachts in each size range. Other winners in this year’s competition: Among superyachts of 160 feet and larger, second place went to Morgan Lonegran of S/Y Red Dragon and Ty Power of M/Y Lazy Z won third.
In the category of yachts 100-159 feet, second place went to Jacob Ebert of M/Y Symphony II and Tonya Bohn of M/Y Amitie won third.
Among vessels less than 100 feet, second place went to Robin Thompson of S/V Matau. Tied for third were Emma Whicher of S/Y More Magic and Claudia Salomon of S/Y Clevelander.
The judges gave a special honor for “amazing effort” to Andrew Graham of M/Y Spirit.
For a complete list of all 31 winners, including the interior staff’s table setting winners, click here.