Founder of YachtChefs.com, former yachtie and digital entrepreneur, Efrem Leigh has forged his own path in the highly competitive world of superyachts. Quitting a corporate career and heading to Antibes in 1991, what started as a career on board led to consultancy in hospitality ashore and finally a move into recruitment at the start of the internet boom.
Fast forward 14 years and YachtChefs.com is a fully certified chef recruitment agency with a difference. Understanding the complexities facing both chefs and employers at this level, Efrem has invested considerable knowledge and passion into building a network of resources available to superyacht chefs free of charge.
We met up with Efrem to find out more and to get his views on the latest developments with the Ship’s Cook certificate and the MFA’s new Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts program.
Over the past 37 years in a yachting and land-based career, you’ve worn many hats. Tell us about your journey.
Like many of us in yachting, it wasn’t the original goal! When I left school in the 80s, I wanted to be an accountant. I worked for the BBC in their main accounting function in Shepherd’s Bush and then headed to Trafalgar Square to work as a Foreign Exchange & Interest Rate Dealer for an Oil Exploration company. At 26, I decided to quit everything to travel and see the world. My sister and I went to Antibes in the early summer of 1991 and walked the docks - that was my first real introduction to yachting.
We camped nearby and spent the days trying our luck with the yachts. It took a while, but she was finally placed on a sailing yacht as a chef, and I found a job on a large motor yacht as a steward. It was a fantastic start to my career, and I spent the next five years in a variety of yacht jobs - from deckie to stew to chef – as well as shore-based management and operational consultancy in hospitality ashore.
I was then headhunted in the late 90s by Thomson Holidays (TUI) to run their ski and lakes programme managing all recruitment and operations. That was good fun, but hard work! I basically changed their recruitment policy to hire professional chefs and hotel managers to work within their resorts in chalets, hotels and bars.
In 2000 after leaving Thomson, I launched a ski job website which was the very first of its kind. A London based recruitment agency bought the site, and I worked for them for a year recruiting for 5-star hotels and fine dining restaurants. Later in 2006 I launched the first rugby and football jobs websites working with the IRB and League Managers Association as Official Recruitment Partner. It was the design of that platform which led me to launch YachtChefs.com.
YachtChefs.com has evolved into a certified recruitment agency over the past 14 years. What made you decide to take the website to the next level?
This is not a job for me; it’s a passion. Before I launched YachtChefs.com in 2006, I knew I wanted to move back to France one day and get involved with yachting again - I love working with such a variety of people with different backgrounds and experiences all over the world. It truly gives me a buzz - I enjoy the challenge of placing a chef on board a yacht, matching skills, personalities and styles.
I also love food and the amazing variety of produce and products available, chatting with chefs about their work and their menus - I am always looking for that passion in the chefs I place. After seven years of running YachtChefs.com, I set up an MCA-compliant French company, registered in Paris as an official maritime recruitment agent and I dedicate all of my efforts to serving my clients.
I’m a one-man-band. This is my business and my future. I’m not a 9-5 office person, and if someone calls me in France at 0300 from Florida, I will answer it. It’s a 24/7 business in yachting and success is about being dedicated to providing that efficient, excellent service that yachting demands.
You also run several online resources for current and aspiring yacht chefs. Why is this an essential part of your recruitment model?
I’ve been building a global database and recruiting chefs for yachts up to 140 metres for the past 14 years but, even from the start, I didn’t just want to do recruitment. I wanted to provide free information to chefs, valuable guidance and first-hand, expert advice to navigate the complex careers, regulations and expectations of a yacht chef, whether they’re experienced or entry level.
I launched the ShipsCookCertificate.com website in addition to YachtChefsMagazine.com, and I am very active on social media - these all offer professional but personal services and updates for my clients and the wider industry. I believe recruitment shouldn’t be about making a fast buck, it’s about offering a longterm solution for clients and candidates equally. I represent both parties in the recruitment process and will always have the same ethos!
ShipsCookCertificate.com was launched specifically to deal with the confusion around this qualification. Why was this needed?
The Ship’s Cook Certificate was rolled out to the yachting industry in 2014/2015. It became a mandatory requirement for chefs working with commercially registered yachts with more than 10 crew members on board. From my experience working with yacht chefs, captains and owners, it didn’t take long to realise that this was quite a full-on change and there were a lot of questions from the start.
The industry faced a huge challenge getting the certificate fully accepted and implemented by yacht chefs. Some chefs are refusing to do it because they feel they don’t need to. They have the skills, and their school of thought is ‘why do I have to do this when I have already trained for years on land as a chef’. That’s where ShipsCookCertificate.com comes in. It guides many through the confusion over what is required, and how to do it.
Some Flag States do not require an actual Ship’s Cook Certificate and recognise a chef’s qualifications or professional experience. However, others do require it, so it is still confusing to this day!
In April 2020 the MFA (Maritime Food Authority) launched the ‘Manager in Charge for Luxury Yachts Program’ which will also require change for yacht chefs. What are your thoughts on the program?
The program is still in its early days so I can’t comment as yet on its success. It seems to offer a regulated and professional focus on food hygiene and safety standards on yachts but there will undoubtedly be many challenges to implementing the program. It will require extensive consultation with yacht chefs and other industry personnel and their feedback should be taken on board. I think it needs to be fully explained to the industry so that chefs, owners, brokers and other relevant industry professionals can fully understand it. In practical terms, chefs also work very long hours so, for the program to work, it needs to make sense to them.
One of my first questions concerns the authority of the MFA – I believe it will need the full endorsement of the major flag states to be fully adopted. Secondly, in the current climate, owners may not be keen to increase their costs, so who will pay for the chefs to undertake any certification and how long is the certificate valid for? If a head chef on a 75 metre yacht is nominated as Manager in Charge and then they leave the yacht, what happens then?
It’s early days but it will be interesting to see how the industry responds. Watch this space!
Watch an interview with Georgie Mainey, Founder of the Maritime Food Authority (MFA)
To gauge the industry response to the MFA's Manager in Charge for the Luxury Yacht Program, Efrem asked a private Facebook group for superyacht chefs to share their views.
Here Georgie discusses each of the points raised with host Rhea Rouw.
See a summary here.