As yacht chefs, an integral part of our job is knowing how to manage expectations.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this skill only relates to demanding guests. There’s also the ever-budgeting captain and the desires of the rest of the crew to be considered- often the galley’s harshest critics.
The crew are actually 15-25 hungry animals who dwell in the belly of the beast, keeping the boat nice and shiny and ticking away. Three times a day they rise up for a feeding frenzy like in the Planet of the Apes. They are not always easily pleased.
Everyone expects something from everyone and these expectations must be managed.
Quality food is a vital part of any hospitality operation, but it is even more important on a yacht. After all, guests are not able just leave and try somewhere else if they’re unhappy with the food.
Charter guests are confined to your ‘restaurant’ once they are onboard and, as we all know, if the guests are unhappy with the food, they tend to find little pleasure in anything else.
The first step to managing expectations is actually understanding what is being required of you.
Never make the mistake of assuming you understand the ‘type’ of person you are dealing with – or that you know what they want. What they want can change in a heartbeat, and preference sheets alone are not enough.
Fact is: you’d better be prepared for all eventualities.
Guests come onboard with all sorts of fad diets and special dietary requirements. Sometimes you are never sure just how “gluten-free” someone is going to be until you get onboard. I like the ‘Oh I’m on my holidays, please pass the bread’ sort of gluten-free people, they crack me up.
Special diets are run of the mill now: lactose free, sugar free, gluten free, vegan, kosher - the list is endless. My very first charter was for a group of 12, all of whom had specific requests but didn’t want one special menu that combined their preferences. Instead, I had to do separate vegetarian, kosher, gluten and lactose free menus for 12 people 3 times a day. That was my first ever trip and I nearly turned on my heels at the door!
Guests are onboard to be treated like royalty (sometimes they are royalty), and they are certainly paying enough for the privilege. Fresh local ingredients cooked perfectly and healthily are the least of their expectations.
For most of us that doesn’t present a problem, but sometimes it depends on the location. Coming up to a charter recently in St Lucia I was very surprised to see the local provisioner coming around to sell his items on a boat he made himself - it might also have been his house. Great bananas though!
Captains also play a big role in the load that is heaped on the galley.
Picture this: You’re standing on the aft deck in uniform, waiting for the charterers to arrive. Next thing you know you are greeted by the main charter guests who have been told all about your amazing sushi/cakes/pastas. ‘Best in the world, according to your captain - we hope you don’t disappoint.'
Ah. So no pressure then? Thanks captain. As lovely as it is to be recommended, the captain in this case has escalated guest expectations – all before they’ve entered the door!
If a captain says jump, you say ‘How high - and can I get you anything while I’m up there?’. It goes without saying that we are expected to work within the budget every month, provide fresh and healthy ingredients for the crew, and keep the guests exceedingly happy, regardless of how many guests there are onboard. I’ve noticed that captains frequently expect the same standard for 12 people as for 120…
Our lovely captains are father figures (if we’re lucky), our teachers, and our bosses....let us not forget that last part! We want them to have high expectations of us, just not unreasonable ones.
Crew: the nightmare of staff in Irish bars around the world and sometimes the bane of my own existence too. To be fair though, they are also the life and soul of the boat. They are the polishers, the deck scrubbers, the fingerprint removers and the pancake flambé-ing artisans that work hard and make us all proud to work as a team for 11 months of the year.
These poor mites need to be fed! We all know this.
But it’s when chefs try to please all the people all of the time that the galley invariably runs into trouble. In our contracts, we all sign that we don’t have any special dietary requirements, but if only it were true! There will always be at least one crewmember who is not happy at meal times.
Sometimes it’s the stew who won’t eat fish this month because she read an article on the internet that said we are all slowly dying of mercury poisoning. Or the deckie who hates the smell of lamb so much so that he has to tell everyone how disgusting it is at the top of his voice until everyone is put off their dinner.
There are reasons why chefs don’t generally eat in the crew mess. I would like to eat in peace - and if I do somehow find the time to sit down and eat, I would prefer not to spend that precious time telling you all about what it is you are eating - what’s in what and how I made it. People, I am on a break!
Group mentality in the crew mess also affects how we provision for the crew. There’s always a new fad going around. If it’s not cabbage soup then it’s protein shakes - I have seen up to 30 litres of milk disappear in 24 hours. It all sounds so reasonable when it’s one person trying to look after themselves…but then one person tells another and it catches on. The next thing you know, the guests have no low-fat milk and the chef looks like an idiot.
There are also the type of crew that make other crew change their eating habits by making them feel guilty about what they are eating. These people usually come in two forms, and these are the ones to look out for:
The size two stew who only eats the latest super-dooper, nail-enhancing, shiny hair foods...she simply cannot stop talking about these foods (I presume because she is so hungry) and she will also kind of bully the other girls into her way of thinking, thereby ruining their meal times too.
The pumped up, super charged deckie who is popping fat burning pills to beat the band, working out obsessively and drinking all the milk!
Be warned: Food fads among the crew are legendary and nearly impossible to predict, and these examples are a clear case of how hard it is to manage a group’s expectations. To be honest, crew can sometimes be a lot more difficult than guests.
Chief Stew Expectations
Chief stewardesses can also play a part in raising the chef’s blood pressure.
I’m sure we can all appreciate that as chefs, we‘re lucky that we rarely have to deal with guests directly.
Not so for our lovely stews who not only have to keep the smile going to the end of a 17 hour shift, but also have to wake up and immediately be happy and alert with full make up.
Stewardesses rely on us to have the food ready at exactly the precise moment they are, every time and all the time. They are the ones that have to deal with awkward and demanding guests, and then come to us, the grumpy pants, and pass on unreasonable orders - all with a smile. I couldn’t do it, that’s for sure.
However, I think a good stewardess should be able to act as a ‘reality buffer’ between the guests and the chefs. We have all witnessed wild requests from clients, but the stewardesses are there to manage these crazy expectations, and ideally arrive in the galley with realistic ones.
Nobody wants a chief stew who always says yes- no matter how ridiculous the request - only to get the galley in the weeds with an order that cannot be done.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been given a crazy order at 4 am. Caviar with all the trimmings for example, to be served within 15 minutes. Not physically possible! And no, odd as this may seem, I don’t have ten portions of Pasta Alfredo ready right now as it is 8am and I am in the middle of breakfast...and who are these ten people? Where did they come from?
Stews have the power to make or break a charter and they can put as much pressure on the galley as they see fit. It’s how you deal with it that counts.
Dialogue and good communication are two key factors for successfully managing expectations.
This can actually prove very difficult for a chef, as sometimes we are not even in the conversation. For example, sometimes the guests talks to the captain, who tells the stew, who then tells the chief stew… who eventually tells the chef, ‘Hey, this is what the guests want. They told the captain 20 minutes ago and they want it now.’ It’s like Chinese whispers sometimes.
I have come to rely on these five few words to get me through any charter:
“ALWAYS PLAN FOR THE WORST”
Defrost the mince just in case, poach the shrimp and tray up the toasties....If you don’t use them then fine - it goes to crew.
A freezer full of prep is the holy grail of a good yacht chef...beef gyozas, veggie spring rolls, pithiviers, braised lamb shanks. Make, bake and relax.
There’s nothing wrong with a mise en place fridge full of dressings, caramelized sweet onions, balsamic reduction, herb oils, curry bases, peeled garlic...do it; do it now; save yourself!
Freeze off some sponge for those last minute birthday cakes we all enjoy making so much. Worst case scenario you don’t end up using it, so you give it to crew in the form of cake pops or, god forbid, Sherry Trifle.
It will be that one time you don’t do it that: kaboom! It’s nightmare on Elm Street at 5am, and you will be absolutely kicking yourself.
Manage expectations where you can…but cater for every eventuality and you cannot go wrong.