Capt. Scott Schwaner never thought he would be on a boat in New Orleans. However, after voyaging around the globe for nearly 40 years, he’s returned to his roots as the master of M/Y Lady Gayle Marie, a 140-foot Burger, the biggest boat on Lake Pontchartrain’s West End Canal.
Capt. Schwaner grew up in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the Northshore of New Orleans. He actually lived at Pontchartrain Yacht Club, where his father was commodore. While he always wanted to be a big boat captain, it took him a long time to get there. With his formal culinary education in a city renowned for exquisite cuisine and southern hospitality, Schwaner was a master chef at Sazerac Restaurant in New Orleans’ Fairmont Hotel. Eventually, he reached his pinnacle on land and decided to revisit the sea.
Back in the day, Schwaner did everything but drive the 80-foot Burger he first crewed on. From heads and beds, to varnish and maintenance, to cooking. Lots and lots of cooking.
“That’s what you did back then,” Capt. Schwaner said. “There weren’t so many big boats, so one person took care of everything. But it gave me a lot of good experience.”
After about four years, a friend said he would double Capt. Schwaner’s salary if he would switch ships – just to cook.
“So I started cooking, as a chef only,” Capt. Schwaner said. “I just kept going and won every award there was. I was the first winner of the first Concours du Chef competition, in Monaco and Antigua.”
When he got his captain’s license, Capt. Schwaner faced a lot of skeptics.
“They’d pat me on the head and say, ‘But you’re just the cook,’” he said. “I had to be on my toes. It was very hard making that transition because I didn’t want to be anyone’s excuse.”
Capt. Schwaner has a proven track record and has stood the test of time at the helm – and in the galley. He has a theory about provisioning the commissary on yachts: It’s all about numbers.
“Have you ever counted the number of slices in a loaf of bread?” he asked. “There are 18 to 26 slices in a loaf. Eggs come in dozen packages. In America, we are used to two slices of toast, two eggs and two slices of bacon, so everything’s in twos.”
If he has guests on board, he has to know how many eggs should be on board for breakfast.
“Look at the number of guests and days on board, break food down into numbers and you can provision very close to perfect,” he said.
If he has to choose, Capt. Schwaner considers his specialty to be pastry. “What I see in my mind, I can create with my hands. It’s the best compliment to one’s self – and chefs need a lot of compliments.”
Capt. Schwaner’s gourmet tip is to cook as his late friend Paul Prudhomme did, like climbing stairs, putting one foot in front of another.
“One ingredient should be sautéed before another,” he said. “If you want to get the most out of every flavor of ingredient, you can only do that by concentrating on one ingredient at a time.”
Capt. Schwaner just bought his first house, a charming Acadian cottage with a large back porch. It sits on 3 acres of land in Franklinton, Louisiana, about 70 miles across Lake Pontchartrain from M/Y Lady Gayle Marie, but it’s worth the trip, he said.
“It’s so different,” he said of this part of Louisiana. “In this area, you’re surrounded by water all the time. But paradise is everywhere we look, actually. When you go to the country, you’re surrounded by things you don’t normally see, like horses and deer, and a cattle farm next door. It’s just beautiful, lovely. It’s absolute country.”
He says living the double life of a captain and chef is really very simple. He does a lot of cooking in advance and sets a schedule with the owners.
“We’re usually at the dock well before dinner is served, so it’s mainly just lunches,” he said.
Capt. Schwaner makes sure he’s anchored in a safe zone as he serves lunch with someone in the wheelhouse on watch. In the galley, he’s only one floor down by radio. He adjusts his course to arrive at the dock before dinner is served.
“It works, and it works safely,” he said. “If you think things through, you can do just about anything. Or, at least, you can do more than you thought you could.”
Lisa Overing is a freelance writer for The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.