The term 'Super Chef' has come to define a galaxy of creative thinkers who have attached their names and particular brands of kitchen magic to everything from hotel restaurants, beach resorts and pop ups through to TV cooking shows and food festivals.
However, Phil Colicchio, a New York based expert in the legal and business aspects of the hospitality industry, thought both the Super Chefs and the yachting community might be missing a trick.
Instead of waiting weeks or months to find yourself in a locale where one might be able to secure a table at the latest uber-fashionable eaterie, why not place working chefs directly into the kitchens of the world’s most talented gastronomes during their down time? Cue his innovative idea of creating Super Stages - chef speak for brief internships – in which yacht chefs can hone their skills, pick up invaluable ideas and actually collaborate with the rock star chef elite.
Phil piloted the scheme at the Bluewater Day during the Antibes Yacht Show in April, where Nicholas Taylor won such a placement at NYC’s iconic East Village bistro “Hearth”, working alongside Marco Canora, who has won rave reviews for his hearty Tuscan cooking from the likes of The New York Times, Conde-Nast, Food & Wine Magazine and others.
What does a hospitality lawyer know about food and culinary education, you may wonder? Well, it probably helps that Phil is the elder cousin of world renowned chef and media personality Tom Colicchio, founder of NYC’s famous Gramercy Tavern. Tom, who owns and operates award winning restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, is the reason Phil ended up as a professional and legal advisor to chefs around the globe. His consulting group, Colicchio Consulting, LLC recently formed the Oceanic Culinary Collaborative, which works with chefs, hotel groups and yachting professionals as far afield as Miami, Antibes, St Kitts, Ireland and the Cayman Islands.
OnboardOnline caught up with Phil as judging of the Yacht Chef’s Competition entered the final exciting stages in Antibes, where he revealed the inspiration behind his idea. ‘I have to credit my friend Buddy Darby, who owns the S/Y Andromeda,’ says Phil. ‘I’ve worked with Buddy and his family at the first class resorts they developed in South Carolina and Western Ireland....Buddy knows food and hospitality very well.
‘He asked what I thought about introducing superstar chefs to superyachts. He thought there was a market for it, as celebrity, glamour and status had clearly come to the food world. He wondered if yacht owners might consider it a trophy to have someone amazingly well known in their galley for a few nights but I thought a better idea would be to provide the hard working yacht chef with a couple of weeks experience working in someone like Tom’s kitchens. Then the owner can tell everyone his chef has done specialty training with the likes of Tom, which would also appeal to charter clients.’
The idea gathered pace when Phil met John Wyborn, training director at Bluewater, last year at the Monaco Yacht Show. ‘John really liked the idea,’ says Phil. ‘He followed up with me when I went back to New York and I started to talk to my chef clients. John invited me to come here and speak about it. The reactions we have had from captains, chefs and charter folks has been amazing. This industry thrives on continuing education and skill development, that’s what makes all of us “experts”. But expertise leaves you very quickly if you don’t collaborate with other talented professionals and keep up to date with your subject matter.’
With his background and experience, Phil was perfectly placed to set up the initiative. ‘My cousin Tom and I grew up very close. We were not from a fine food culture but our parents’ Italian heritage meant that we always ate very well. I was an attorney when Tom started his career and he would ask me questions about various business matters. When he was only 27, The New York Times wrote an incredibly flattering review about his restaurant Mondrian (which doesn’t exist anymore) and that changed his life. He received a lot of attention and became much more involved in running the restaurant, phoning me whenever he needed legal and business advice.
‘We decided to set him up as his own business, which was very attractive to other chefs of Tom’s calibre at that time, as most of were simply talented employees rather than business owners. Everything that followed came by word of mouth and I was in the right place at the right time when Las Vegas started to knock on the doors of New York’s leading restaurant chefs. I started negotiating those contracts because the hotel and casino lawyers didn’t have any experience in the restaurant and chef industry. I became a known commodity. It was good fortune and it’s also been handy when I want to make bookings at the restaurants of the moment!’
Phil believes the exchange of information through hands on experience between yacht and land chefs will prove invaluable at raising the standards across the profession. ‘Effectively a yacht chef operates his own three to four meal per day restaurant in a boutique hotel,’ he explains. ‘It’s very difficult without having a collaborative environment where they can challenge each other and learn from each other.
‘These men and women often find themselves alone, despite being part of a crew. I’ve not seen too many scenarios where two chefs are employed at the same time on the same vessel. The land chefs that I’ve spoken to are also excited about this. Most of them have no experience whatsoever of doing what they do on a yacht. They are in commercial kitchens which are nothing like a galley, so when they find someone doing creative food and doing it well in that environment, they are very impressed. The idea of a superstage is not just about interning - they will be rolling up their sleeves and working at a very high level.’
Phil has already secured several high profile restaurants for the scheme including Hearth and Craft in New York City, Chef Michael Schwartz’s four restaurants in Miami and Tom’s venues in Las Vegas, Miami and New York. All the chefs taking part are James Beard award winners, an accolade that carries more kudos in the US than the Michelin star system. He is planning to extend the programme through the Caribbean, Europe and the UK eventually.
‘Gordon Ramsay has a big presence on TV and highly successful restaurants in London and Las Vegas,’ adds Phil. ‘I understand that he began his career as a yacht chef so we will approach him through the hotel in Las Vegas. Luckily, a lot of chefs know who I am through Tom so my phone calls tend to get returned,’ he says with a laugh.
He is also working closely with Christophe Harbour, Buddy Darby’s yachting destination development in St Kitts, as well as the local government, with an aim toward constructing an intimate training commissary there. ‘It will allow us to bring the Super Chefs to a single destination while the yacht chefs are in port and provide demonstrations and seminars for them over the course of a few days, as well as to provide a space for locals and resort guests to train and hone their culinary interests.’
The PYA has also been an important source of support, with Phil adding: ‘The PYA is very much behind the idea and want chefs to apply to the programme through the PYA so that results and participants can be tracked. Chefs will have to have their certificate and papers in order and, of course, have a certain level of competence in order to be thrown into a sizeable kitchen in London, New York or Miami. We need to make sure that person knows his or her way around and does not become like a deer caught in the headlights! The PYA also wants real feedback from the restaurants at which the chefs stage.
‘Yacht chefs are very talented and committed professionals....their levels of excellence should be recognised and rewarded. The yacht chefs I’ve spoken to spend their down time - and their own money - eating at different restaurants in different cities. They want to know who is doing something interesting, what flavours are popping and making them say wow. The feedback we have received on the OCC has been fantastic so we are keen to see how it goes.’
What’s your hot NYC restaurant tip right now?
I’m a big fan of a new restaurant called All’onda, in which chef Chris Jaeckel merges Italian and Japanese. On paper, it sounds crazy but in practice, it’s amazing. There is a space on the West Side around 48th Street on 11th Ave called Gotham West Market, with five or six mini-restaurants, and it’s terrific. Chef Seamus Mullen does wonderful Spanish cuisine there and another favourite, The Cannibal, is located there too. It has taken the intimidating concept of Eataly, a massive food market in Italy, and sculpted an intimate version. It’s a brilliant mash up of a market/restaurant/pub/butcher’s shop. And the very cool rooftop bar at the Park South Hotel on East 28th street is NOT to be missed!
What can a restaurant chef learn from a yacht chef?
That a great deal can be accomplished at exceptionally high levels in space that appears to be limited.
What’s your favourite dish?
My mum’s lasagne, it’s always been my comfort food. I’m also a big fan of a simple roasted chicken, with a couple of green and root vegetables on the side.
Can you cook?
Not nearly as well as people think I can! I can put together a meal, but I worry too much about what I’m going to cook and whether people will enjoy it. My real talent is helping the people who actually have the talent!