With 20 years' experience as a chef on board superyachts, English-born Luke Owen has seen it all. From his all-time heroes to the ingredients he can't live without, we talk to the sole chef about his experiences in the kitchen and the galley.
Who is your food hero and why?
Gordon Ramsay! The man has held three Michelin stars at “Restaurant Gordon Ramsay” for 18 consecutive years. If you have ever seen the series “Boiling Point” you will know what he went through to earn this, and the heartache he and the team experienced when they were convinced they had earnt the star, but it just wasn’t their year. Some may say he’s sold out but let’s face it, we would all do the same given the opportunity.
What three ingredients could you not live without?
Definitely maldon salt. Being Essex born and raised, it’s one of the things I hold close to my heart. I have bought it all over the world from Monaco to Meribel, Chelmsford to Cairns. It’s only seasoning but without it, food is nothing! Next would be butter.
When I say I have the chemical structure of it tattooed on my arm, I’m not lying. It’s the foundation of everything I was taught as an apprentice - it’s the butter poached trout, the steak being basted with tonnes of thyme and fresh garlic, the first ingredient in a chocolate fondant. It’s everything that made me fall in love with food. And finally lemon. Again, such a versatile ingredient. It’s a natural seasoning and will take something that’s not quite ready to something that’s singing its hat off in the squeeze of a zest.
What are your three favorite cookbooks and why?
Coco - 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs. It includes Ferran Adrià, Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay who each choose ten exceptional young chefs who have emerged in the past five years. Each of the 100 chefs are then featured with recipes, photographs, a menu and an original essay written by the nominating chef.
Thomas Keller – Under Pressure. This was the book that changed everything. It was the book that transformed food to science. It made me ask why and how. Before that the recipe was just a recipe and after it was a scientific formula. It made me think of food in a completely different way.
Roald Dahl - Revolting Recipes. This was my first cookbook and I was given it by either my mum or my nan when I was eight years old and the world was my oyster. I was left alone in the kitchen to make ‘lickable wallpaper’ from Charlie and the chocolate factory or Mr Twits’ beard from The Twits. It was MAGIC. I felt like a king when seeing the joy brought to other people with food I had made for the first time.
What three kitchen gadgets could you not live without?
A Maurice! I honestly don’t even want to think of life without one. Could you imagine the hassle of scraping bowls clean?
Next it’s a microplane box grater which is a life-changing purchase. I wish they were built a little stronger, but it serves its purpose from zesting, dusting, grating chocolate, mincing garlic. It literally saves me time everywhere, and I probably value it as much a Rosewood handle Victorinox pastry knife.
Finally a pocket thermometer. From caramels to the cuisse of your duck and without even going into the HACCAP side of it, it’s more important than you think.
What piece of equipment should every yacht have in the galley?
A Kitchenaid 6.9L or similar. I find that things guests get more excited and impressed by than anything else are bread and pasta which, with a little basic understanding, are incredibly simple things to put out for guests. Plus, as a sole chef, it means no bakery run in the mornings; another time saver.
What would you say are some of the most overrated ingredients?
Dare I say Caviar? I mean I love it, but I can’t see the value of it. Again I understand why it’s so popular, but it’s just not got enough bang for buck in my book. Also spiny lobster, which again like caviar I understand, but it’s not better than Scottish Lobster in my book.
What would you say are some of the most underrated ingredients?
In my opinion the king of carbohydrates, i.e. the humble potato. From dauphinoise to fondants, pont neuf to gnocchi, rostis to pomme Puree, it’s so versatile. You show me someone who doesn’t love a potato in some form, and I’ll show you a liar.
Chervil is hands down another one for me. It’s such a gentile aromatic herb and shares one of the same aromatic compounds as tarragon, which gives it a very delicate anise aroma and flavour. An utter treat in my eyes.
What has been the most popular (or requested dish) on a yacht by a guest so far?
In the last few years I must have done a salt baked fish at least once a week. It's great theatre for the guests with chef at the table delicately cracking the crust and filleting the fish tableside.
If you were a guest on a yacht, who would you want to cook for you and why?
Can I say me? Not in an arrogant way, but I would like to see how my food is received by clients to eat. Obviously I introduce courses every night and I receive the feedback, but I’m not actually there to see facial expressions and witness conversation as it happens. It would be much easier for me to critique my food if I hadn’t made it, so if I had a doppelgänger cooking for me, I would be able to dissect the dish in a much more thorough way then any chef could their own food. That distance would lead to a better critique of one’s own food.
What music do you listen to in the galley (if at all)?
If we are in phone signal range, I stream Radio1 - it’s my little slice of home. It keeps me up-to-date with news and current goings on and I don’t have to decide what to listen to as any less decisions in a day is a bonus to any chef.
Best galley tip/hack?
Bulk up on your ‘Mise’ when making purees, crumbles, textures, tuilles etc, and don’t just make what you need for that specific charter. Bulk it and vac. & freeze so that you already have components ready for when you need them next time. Have meat proteins vacc’d with oils and herbs as an emergency that can go from the freezer directly into a water bath. You can have poussin breast from frozen to 63c in 30 min. Working smart is the key to working on a superyacht.
What is the most difficult location you have ever had to provision in? And what bit of advice can you give to figure out where to go?
I spent a year and a half on a 55M in Australia where we traveled from Broome to Melbourne via Papua New Guinea. When we were exploring the river systems of the Northern Territory, we were 100s of miles from anything. We were away from port for weeks at a time on a boat that was not designed for exploration, and I had no walk-ins, so life was hell at times. All shopping was done in supermarkets wherever I was able to get off the boat.
Provisioning in PNG with a security detail armed with AK-47’s was a rather surreal experience. My main problem with being in Australia and PNG was that there is not the support network of provision agents like there are here in the Med, so when it came to needing something, if I didn’t have in onboard then I was pretty stuck.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Honestly, I think its cooking for crew. Not the actual cooking part, but making sure there is no frequent repetition, no crew changing their diets, and no crew thinking that the chef is there to cook for them. Off charter I am as it’s my job, but sometimes crew forget the workload of a sole chef on a 50m boat while on charter.
What would you say to people who stereotype chefs as being prima donnas with big egos?
Some chefs genuinely are, but in the private environment in which we work I don’t think there is a need for it. Dinner for 12 should never be stressful. I was taught by one of my first mentors the mantra of the 7Ps: Prior Planning & Preparation Prevents a Piss Poor Performance. As long as you are on top of your ‘Mise’ and you work smart, this job isn’t hard. It is long, it’s 18-20-hour days, but the actual workload and stress is not that of a Michelin kitchen.
What is your attitude toward crew with dietary requirements?
I personally think it can get way out of hand. I have zero issues with genuine allergies, but when crew decide to try a new diet, or when they break their own rules, it can get frustrating. For example, I had a captain & chief stew who were vegan from Monday to Friday, but that was until there was leftover Wagyu from guest lunch or after a few beers when they would eat pizza. Or the gluten-free stewardesses who will eat cake for 3pm tea break.
What crew fail to understand is that a crew member with a special diet can literally be a whole new workload for a chef. This is why I buffet everything for crew, with five to six options for lunch and dinner. A meat, fish, vegetable, two salads and a carbohydrate. Even if you don’t like three of the things that go up, you can still eat three other dishes.
What is the weirdest most bizarre thing you have ever been asked to cook?
I once had a French TV personality who brought his poodle with him and I was asked to make a seven-day, three-course menu for the dog who would sit in a chair at the opposite head of the table to the principle. The dog’s favorite dish, as requested by the boss, was tuna steak poached in milk in case you wondered.
Name something you have cooked for guests that you are most proud of.
I had a charter a few years ago in Sardinia for American clients, who were told by a friend that while they were in the area they must try a ‘Tart Tropezienne’.Obviously we were not in St Tropez, but as I did six years of pastry work in my younger years, I knew it was nothing more than an enriched dough with crème pâtissière filling. It came out amazing and now features as a buffet dessert whenever we are cruising the Cote d’Azur.
When you are interviewing a chef to work for you, how do you know if they are any good?
You can’t. You can see their enthusiasm and product knowledge, but you cannot asses their actual skill set and palate until you see them pick up a knife. But within an hour you will know for sure when you see how they prep, how tidy they are, silly things like how they clingfilm a plastic container. All of these will show you the environment they were raised in.
What one thing should all chefs do to help the environment?
Make sure you are buying from reputable, sustainable suppliers. Avoid avocados and anything with palm oil like the plague as they are the single largest cause of illegal deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia respectively.
What one thing can chefs do to limit food wastage?
Be creative, turn something into something else, feed them the remains of guest food (this is doubly effective as if crew eat the same as guests, they definitely cannot complain about crew food). Any chef worth their weight can pull a rabbit out of the hat if needed.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you want to be?
I honestly have no idea; a chef is all I ever wanted to be. From the age of six I used to make food from Playdough and have fake dinners for mum and dad. I have my dream job so I don’t even think I would want to be anything else. Well maybe a Top Gun pilot, but that’s not a reality.