Chef salaries transition since 1980s

May 1, 2013 by Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

When it comes to salaries for yacht chefs, I have to remain neutral because I have been at both ends of the salary spectrum as a professional, dual credentialed ACF chef. 


From just starting in the industry years before some of you were born to making an absurd amount in the six figures -- which ended up being so brutal that I was happy to kiss all that money goodbye -- I know what it is like to work your way up and to walk away.


Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.


The average chef salary is somewhat common for a given-sized yacht and it is based on a two-year culinary degree and the deep (or not-so deep) pockets of the owner.


However, last year and the year before, what was being offered was not what I would call industry standard. The standards were lowered. The industry was dealing with a broken economy and foreign-based wage earners who would take the job for a lot less. Both Europeann and American chefs scoffed at the low salaries out there.


Today, they are a little higher, but not much. It is still hard to find a job with a monthly salary between $8,000-$15,000.


In the yachting heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, being a “yacht chef” was premised on a positive response to the question “Can you cook?”


Not any more. Crew agents, owners and captains want to know where their chefs went to school. They want to scrutinize your menus and you better have food photos to back them up.


Even with all that -- education, experience, gorgeous food and incredible menus -- expect to settle for less. Maybe even $1,000-$1,500 less than the going rate. Remember that owners, managers and captains want to get their chefs as cheap as they can to save money.


When it comes to standard salaries, here are a few questions to ask:
1. When you find out the salary, will you make enough each month to pay all your bills, put some in a savings account, and put some in an emergency fund for when you have to job hunt again?
2. What benefits are included? Are there bonuses, year-end salary bumps, or tips from charters? Does your employer give you a percentage of the charters booked?
Are there benefits such as medical insurance, paid leave, paid vacations and tickets home once a year? If so, this job might merit a lower salary. Although it might not equate to you in dollars at the time, these are valuable assets in a job as a yacht chef.
3. How many people will you be cooking for? If it is 50 guests every week, the salary should reflect the work you will be responsible for. If the new job includes seven crew and the occasional owner’s trip, then take that into consideration when considering the salary offered.
Some yachts have a way of adding more people unexpectedly and doing it repeatedly, to the point that it exhausts the chef and they get burned out. Yes, there are some yacht owners who expect a lot for not a lot of money. Be wary of these owners; they tend to be takers with not much to offer on the giving side.
4. Ask about the yacht from other crew and captains. Word gets around fast. If there is a reputation for the yacht with negativity, don’t think you are the chef who will change things. There is a reason that yacht went through 20 chefs in a year. It’s not because they couldn’t cook, keep up with the pace or manage their inventory. Something else is going on there. Be wary.
5. It’s not all about you, the chef. Chefs have a way of separating themselves from the rest of the crew because we work alone in the galley. You need to get out of the mindset that you alone can change things. You need to work as a team to pull it off. If you do, then in the long run, your salary will show that.
6. Will you be expected to go from the yacht to the owner’s home? If so, your salary should reflect this. Will you be expected to cook for the house staff as well? Do they provide shore-based housing? What about transportation expenses? Are you expected to have your own car to travel between the yacht and the estate? Will those expenses be reimbursed?


For all these reasons -- and the myriad more that make every yacht chef job unique -- I have always called my occupation “yachting for dollars.” It’s sort of like bobbing for apples, but without the stuffed toy prize at the end. Hopefully, the prize for yacht chefs is a bigger paycheck that truly reflects the non-standard jobs we’re asked to perform.

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


About Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years.

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