We all know the familiar grumbles and complaints.
"We don't eat leftovers."
"You know what my mom used to do..."
You think your crew is spoiled and should be happy with what's on the table. But take their criticisms and turn it around! One of the joys (and headaches) of crew cooking is giving them what they need.
This doesn't mean just feeding their bodies, but their cravings too. Food is linked to our desire for adventure or comfort. Not wanting leftovers may mean they need extra love - they feel that no one took the extra care to make something special. Not wanting chicken again might means they need variety, they're bored at work. When they're homesick, they want food how Mom made it.
So as we head into the winter season, let's start fresh and put a new twist on comfort food.
If you're on a small boat, you can branch out of the meat, starch & veg routine. Really. This can be a hard mindset to break, especially for those of us coming from the restaurant industry. Crew doesn't always need-or want-elaborate meals. One-dish meals are okay. As well as simple food. Something they can eat standing up when things are chaotic and they need to feed their bodies in a rush.
One day I made a salad for myself with leftovers from crew and guest meals. I was running out of food, and also craved something simple. I made everyone else steak, potatoes and broccoli, only to see everyone eyeing up my salad and wanting that instead.
The next day I made Niçoise salads for all (guests and crew) and everyone was happy.
I've learnt that crowd pleasers include anything you would find in a standard casual restaurant. Soups, salads, sandwiches and pastas. Chicken piccata. spaghetti and meatballs. Shrimp scampi. Minestrone soup. Look at menus from the Cheesecake Factory or TGI Fridays. Research a few new ethnic dishes and you are good to go.
This actually goes for your guests as well, especially if you have them onboard for longer than a week. They don't want foie gras all the time.
For larger yachts, you need to offer a variety of dishes. This can be difficult to do on your own. The most important thing to remember is to make it easy for yourself.
If you have time before a charter, get ahead. Make a double batch of soups, lasagnas, curries, and chili, and freeze the rest for a second go around.
At the beginning of the week, I make two sheet trays of grilled chicken breast (about 20 pieces). I slice up half, and freeze. It becomes chicken curry, sandwiches, stir fry, chicken and broccoli pasta - you get the point. Do the work once for multiple meals.
Use that slow cooker or oven, let it do the work for you while you prepare guest food.
Frozen pizzas and savory tarts are my friend in a pinch. Jazz it up by adding your own homemade toppings: fresh tomato and mozzarella.
Simplify your seasonings. My favorite sauces include: equal parts honey and Dijon mustard, stupendous on baked chicken or salmon. Ketchup or HP Sauce and honey also work well.
Some more crew meal ideas:
Make your own sandwich bar - Fresh bread, cheeses, salami and spreads. Make your own salad bar works too. Crew can be creative and tailor their meal exactly how they like it.
Hot sandwiches - sausage and peppers, Cuban, chicken chili and jack cheese. Burgers. Grilled cheese varieties. Tacos, burritos
Ethnic dishes - Moroccan chicken, Chinese fried rice and sweet and sour meatballs, kungpao pasta, moussaka, Cajun gumbo, kebab
Once a week, do a fry-up for breakfast, with eggs, bacon, toast and potatoes. It goes a long way toward boosting team morale. Each crew member can also request a special dish once a month.
And if at the end of the day, there's still a wave of discontent, the only thing you can do is accept it and let it go. It's pretty much impossible to please everyone.
I know chefs take pride in the food they deliver, and really want to make crew happy. You bend over backwards and expect some gratitude. And you might take these complaints personally.
But just remember, they might just be having a bad day. Maybe they're bored of detailing toilets and screw heads. Maybe they're missing home.
For better or worse, it's your job to take care of their body and mind. It's a big responsibility, but the next time they praise your food and you make their day, it will all be worth it.
Chef Ivy Dai trained in France and at the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. Dai appeared on Food Network's “Cupcake Wars," and is also the founder of Dragon Dinners, cooking classes for home cooks.
The California native found her passion for cooking at the age of 12, when she took a home economics class and began baking for friends and family.
She worked for the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels in LA, and was cooking and teaching in Paris before falling into yachting.
Before cheffing, she was a producer at ABC News and a full-time food writer. She enjoys bringing an Asian flair to Mediterranean cuisine. For more Med-inspired recipes, visit her blog at: ivyeats.com