Top Shelf: A chef worth his salt sees the curveball coming

Oct 20, 2019 by Timothy MacDonald

Top Shelf: by Chef Tim MacDonald

Oh, sole chefs, we all know the scene. The guests have landed after the plane was delayed – not once, but three times –and nobody has bothered to ask if they want any sort of food, given their departure and arrival time. 

A seasoned chef will not fall for this old trick. Land-based PAs, I am miles ahead of you. I saw this one coming when you were slapping the snooze button on your iPhone X, knowing that the boss was away for two weeks.

The guests have reported that they are starving and want to sit down straight away. It’s 4 p.m., and what was meant to be a light lunch (because we had no communications from land) has turned into a full lunch set. And then … here comes the curveball.

Despite planning, booking and paying for their holiday months ago, and for some reason that nobody can get to the bottom of, another guest has been added at the last minute – a friend of a non-principal and, wait for it, they have an eating disability that required pre-ordering from Florida weeks ago. And they have already told the head stew that they want a specific Wholefoods snack and a specific meal ASAP, as the in-flight jet did not cater to their needs. The head stew enters the galley, and this is where the fun starts.

As a yacht chef, I believe you go through a smelting process. The ones who survive past five years are the Rambos of the industry. Principally, you have to learn that to survive you must cook what the guests want – and sometimes, more to the point, what the crew want –if you are to be in good standing.

Second to the process is planning for war. By that, I mean expect the worst case and plan for it in your stock levels. Educating yourself on current diet trends is as important as eating out for educational purposes.

Next is raising the bar, and by that I mean learning and accepting that, generally speaking, guests like a selection of nicely plattered food as opposed to a one-option starter, main and dessert. I would even go as far as to say in the past five years dessert demand has dropped off, and that’s a positive if you are a sole chef on charter.

Next in the evolution is the study and prediction knowledge. Now, you don’t have to be a Dr. Michael Burry, but by studying what foods the doctors are prescribing to counter depression and anxiety, you will go a long way in quickly predicting what the guests are going to be asking for on the fly.

To survive and evolve, I always have a vegetarian option with protein, and a healthy grain and vegetable salad option on the buffet. If you can provide Japanese daily as well, you will reduce your own misery substantially. By that I mean the guest who, despite the menu having been  displayed all day since 8 a.m., has decided five minutes before the guests sit down to dinner to actually look at the menu and discover that they don’t like it and now want a specific artisan-crafted plate instead.

It’s an easy way to win. Along with a changing blueprint of soup, salad, pasta, crustacean or meat, generally speaking, with vegetable options you can handle the curveball every time – and if you are lucky, hit a home run! 

Once you have exhausted all the usual veggie suspects, Southeast Asia is a great place to seek inspiration for vegetarian/vegan cuisine, as they’ve been doing it for yonks. And Thailand has a plethora of plant-based, gluten-free salads. Here is one to bung on your lunch buffet. And if you ditch the peanuts in favor of some roasted seeds or nuts, even the paleos will be happy.


The dressing

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons palm sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 teaspoons finely minced garlic
  • 4 bird’s eye chilis, finely chopped 

The salad

  • 6 soft-fried eggs
  • 4 plum tomatoes, cut in arcs
  • 2 sweet onions, cut in arcs
  • 2 cucumber, peeled and cut lengthways
  • 1 cup mixed celery leaf and coriander
  • 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts
  • 1/4 cup spring onions, cut lengthways
  • Add julienne carrots, chives, green mango shreds, etc., as desired to “veg up” salad


Timing is everything. Toss the salad and place on top of the warm eggs, then add dressing.

Serves six.

Tim MacDonald ( has been a chef for more than 20 years. He was named Concours de Chefs winner for Yachts over 160 feet at the 2011 Antigua Charter Yacht Show. His recipes are designed for the owner and guests. Comments are welcome below.