Chef off duty, try crew or temp

Jul 8, 2014 by Guest Writer

Your chef just had an emergency back home and has to step off the yacht for a week or so. In the meantime, the yacht has a trip planned, maybe a charter or perhaps a trip with the boss and guests. What do you do?

The easiest and perhaps most logical answer is to hire a freelance chef for the trip. But don’t assume that’s the only solution. I have seen several cases where other crew members successfully pitch in to cook, giving the owner another glimpse into the value of his crew and giving the talented crew member a break in his/her regular duties.

Each scenario, each yacht, of course, is different. Start by asking what the expectations are of the upcoming trip. Is it a high-end charter that requires Michelin service? (If so, you’ll probably need a replacement chef who can deliver to those standards.)

But if it’s not, see if someone already onboard can step in to help out. Some yachts are casual and the owners don’t mind experiencing the cuisine of one of their crew. On many yachts, a crew member already cooks once a week to give the chef a break, so they are already aware what it takes to feed the yacht.

Of course, some crew are better at this than others, so it’s a decision. I’m just saying to make sure you consider existing crew in the mix of options.

When a freelance chef is needed to fill in, there are things to consider other than their skills as a chef. To make that trip go as smoothly as possible, a yacht should consider:

1. The ability of the freelance chef to fit in with the existing crew  

2. The expectations of the owner or guests

3. The budget

4. How good the fill-in chef is.

Perhaps the most critical component for a fill-in chef is their attitude. Yacht crew are a tight-knit group and a new person has to fit into the current dynamic. Can the fill-in take direction and criticism from the crew? The crew are the fill-in chef’s knowledge base. They can help someone stepping in for a brief time, but only if the temporary chef lets them.

As for expectations, get references from other yachts, and food pictures. More importantly, if there’s time, have them come in and do a trial day. This is standard procedure for estate chefs so why not for yacht chefs?

I’ve found that the budget issue can be significant. Can this fill-in chef keep to a budget? Do they know how to provision? Can they give the costs of a recipe? It’s simple math, really, but this will tell you if they know what they spend. Not all chefs focus on saving the yacht and owners money, and there are those I like to call runaway chefs, those who take the pocketbook and run. One freelance chef ran a food bill up to five figures in less than a week. This chef didn’t like the pots and equipment onboard so he went out and bought new ones for his temporary stint.

The captain can avoid runaway spending by giving the fill-in chef a menu and asking them to price it out, and by having them stick to the preference sheets. Have rules for the galley. Go over this with the fill-in chef prior to any spending.

Finally, you have to consider how good the chef is, and I don’t just mean his/her culinary skills. Is the chef concerned only with food or with the whole picture to get the job done? Does the freelance chef have the aptitude to go days on end and not cause problems or take a break? If they have never done a freelance gig before, is your yacht the one that they should cut their teeth on?

There is a lot more involved in hiring a freelance chef than getting a warm body in the galley, including uniforms and personality conflicts or mood issues that affect everyone. I am all for hiring freelance chefs on certain occasions. But I am also for the crew stepping forward and doing the job if they can.

Regardless of who you get, understand that the job can be overwhelming for one person. That is why it is important to act and work as a team. If you notice the fill-in chef in need of help, give it to them. They are working for you as well as for the owner and guests. A great team gets the job done.


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


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