When, as a chef, I was asked to write an article on the finer points of the chef/crew relationship on board yachts, the initial rush of excitement I felt – and I mean the sadistic, puppy-kicking* kind of excitement a person may feel when revenge is about to be served very, very cold – quickly dwindled as I realised two things: I’m not a sadistic puppy-kicker; nor do I like serving cold food. This realisation made me think a little harder, soul search, even – take stock of what sort of person I really am – or more appropriately, what sort of person the crew think I am. You see, as unfortunate and maligned as it may be, we chefs are stereotyped into a box, a category that doesn’t see us too far removed from the puppy-kickers of this world. The question to be asked then, is, why...?
I had asked my crew for some input or anecdotes from our years together. Waiting for their emails was like waiting for Christmas. I couldn’t wait to hear all the stories they remembered of all the good times we’d had, how wonderfully well I’ve looked after them – and, in fact, I had assumed that some, if not all of them, would take this stellar opportunity to put into writing the appreciation they felt, without the awkwardness of having to do it face-to-face. And I waited. Christmas didn’t come. Santa didn’t come. Satan came, riding the inbox-bound devil express.
‘Remember that time you burned me with hot tongs at crew lunch? Or the time you rubbed my cup of tea with bird’s-eye chilli? That time you tricked me into eating a spoonful of fresh horseradish, and secretly fed me duck when you KNOW I hate it. You promised me hamburgers for 3 months and never made them. You NEVER make me schnitzel. I hate rice and you serve it all the time. You KNOW I’m allergic to prawns and you served them THREE DAYS IN A ROW! YOU MADE ME CHICKEN WINGS AND I HATE YOU FOR IT...!!!’
Did they hate me...? Are they only nice to my face to ensure their next meal is something vaguely edible...? Are they simply trying to avoid further acts of culinary villainy...? A small part of me knew all of this to be true...the larger part of me was, well, quite frankly, having a wee chuckle.
Because to me, these are the things that define and even create our relationships on board. I mean, nothing says ‘Good Morning’ like picking up a set of blisteringly hot tongs, or a touch on the arm with a superheated teaspoon. The realisation, with a goodhearted grin, that those blisters will only be around for a few days, but that moment of bonding will stay with us forever. The joy I see spreading across someone’s face as the seething hot burn of bird’s-eye chilli starts it’s magma-like journey from ‘entrance’ to ‘exit’, is a moment we share, chef and crew member, one that will be as burned into our memories as that of the horseradish that follows, with the same reassuring words that only close friends would share – ‘Trust me, this will take away the burn’.
Yes, I agree, burgers would be great tomorrow, but how much better are they going to be after you’ve waited three months...? And I KNOW you love schnitzel, which is why I don’t want to spoil it by giving them to you too often. These examples of working together for mutual benefit are what we are all about – you don’t spoil your love of crumbed, fried, meat parcels, and I don’t have to make the goddamn things every day. Everyone’s happy – that’s teamwork. Didn’t I mention it was duck? You didn’t mention you blocked our toilet. You’re allergic to prawns? I’m allergic to having my clothes shrunk. Let’s work together.
Have I answered my own question? I think everyone on board would have some reason to gripe, some instance where my actions have resulted in short-term trauma, repressed memories, or the need for refrigerated toilet paper. But the bottom line is that we are all close, dear friends despite it. I think without some humour and good-natured fun, we’d all become sterile, lifeless and boring, which translates directly to that other part of our job, our guests and owners. But that’s another story...
They say the fastest way to your crew’s heart is through their stomach’s – biologically, this would mean the most efficient path would be to enter at the same point the chilli was exiting – not something I think anyone would enjoy. So I think, for now, I’ll stick to my methods, and hopefully keep my crew happy, laughing, and using their cutlery for their dinner, and NOT to stick in my back.
*No puppies were harmed in the writing of this story.
Morgan Lonergan, 35, has been the chef on S/Y Red Dragon for the last four years. He started cooking with his mother when he was 6 years old and was soon reading through cookbooks and started preparing dinner parties for his parents and their friends. At 17, he became a professional chef and began training and working in New Zealand and Australia before buying his first restaurant at the age of 26. He was coerced into working on Red Dragon after cooking for the first mate and his wife while running the kitchen at the Amandari hotel in Bali.