You don’t have to spend very long talking to Duncan Biggs to grasp the fact that mentoring and training, crew development and team spirit are where it’s at.
His desire to promote these factors and make them industry benchmarks in the galley has made him one of the leading chef trainers on the Côte d’Azur.
His passion for good, simple and seasonal food is immediately apparent when he suggests doing our interview over lunch at an unassuming little café in Antibes. As I rave about the goat’s cheese salad which is tasty, subtly flavoured and beautifully presented - in fact, one of the best I have eaten in France - he confides that the chef used to work with Alain Ducasse.
Duncan’s path to chef training - a hot potato of a topic since the advent of the Ship’s Cook Certificate last summer - and food and health hygiene has been an eventful one, encompassing stints feeding the Royal Navy at war in the Gulf, leading politicians and lawyers in London and latterly, being in charge of the state of the art galley on Roman Abramovich’s spectacular 115m superyacht Luna.
It all started at his mother’s side in the kitchen. ‘I started cooking at 6 or 7 years old with my mum, making pastry,’ he recalls. ‘My mum could make something out of nothing. She was a good homely cook.’
He did his City and Guilds catering qualifications at catering college and his passion for travel led to Duncan joining the Royal Navy at 19. ‘After basic training they sent me to chef school and I came top of the class as I had just finished college,’ he recalls. ‘I ended up being sent to the NATO headquarters in Northwood where I worked in the main and wardroom galleys, cooking for officers and crew. I was a young chef and it was an amazing place to learn.’
Following a promotion, he catered the annual summer balls at NATO’s Admiralty Houses and was billeted onto HMS Scylla and sent to the Gulf during the Iran/Iraq conflict. ‘We were looking after tankers up and down the straits and we ended up on the Noel Edmonds Christmas Show,’ he says. ‘A Korean tanker had been hit while they were filming and I ended up being part of the stretcher party.’
During his five and a half years in the navy, he cooked for Margaret Thatcher a couple of times and also worked at The Law Society. ‘The galley and dry store was where they used to keep prisoners - it still had the big cell door and you could go through underground passages to the court rooms,’ he reveals. ‘It was a fantastic place to cook. We had banqueting halls as well as a restaurant, staff dining room and a private house for important events.’
At 26, he left to go travelling, completing diving instructor courses in Australia. On his return to London, he was offered a couple of jobs and ended up taking one as head chef on S/Y Twirly Bird, owned by the late Alan Bristow, founder of Bristow Helicopters. ‘Within a week, I was sailing in the Caribbean,’ he recalls. A move to the south of France and a job working on 1921 gaff rig ketch Rosa followed and he worked his way up in the yachting industry on different sized yachts before landing the prestigious post as one of two head chefs on Luna.
‘It was brilliant,’ he recalls of his four years on the yacht. ‘Luna had 50 crew and everyone got along well, it was so friendly. We worked hard but it was a very happy ship. Roman Abramovich was a nice guy to work for, he would always say hi when he came into the galley and his family is also very polite. It was a pleasure to work for him.
‘There were four chefs in total and we bounced ideas off each other. We prepared buffet style food most days, healthy choices because he is very into his health. We’d experiment with different salads and vegetarian options as well as meat courses. We even started smoking fish ourselves and did some plank cooking in Alaska.’
What the hell is plank cooking, I ask. ‘You get a cedar plank and soak it in water for anything from two hours to overnight, then put your fish on it and grill it. It burns the edges of the plank, which starts to smoke then you put a lid over it so that it smokes the fish. We had freedom, plenty of choice and went to Alaska, the States, Europe and the great lakes between Canada and the US. It was the perfect job.’
The state of the art kitchen boasted walk in fridges, a separate section for bakery and patisserie and plenty of space but when Roman Abramovich sold Luna, Duncan, who lives in Valbonne with his wife Anne, realised he was ready for another challenge.
‘I had already started training to teach food safety on the boat because we all believed in it,’ he says. ‘We had chefs and stewardesses together doing the same course, everyone was communicating better and it improved everything on board.
‘I’m passionate about training. We know it works but sometimes it’s the last thing anybody wants to do. People wonder why they need to know so much but in the end they are so pleased to have other people to exchange views with. You have eight or 10 chefs who are used to being on their own at sea, swapping stories and contacts with each other.’
A chance to become partners with fellow chef Cedric Seguela in Secrets de Cuisine led to the PYA’s Joey Meen inviting Duncan to bring his considerable experience to bear as an assessor for the MCA. Duncan’s change in direction last April coincided neatly with the introduction of the much maligned Ship’s Cook Certificate - which requires anyone cooking on board for 10 or more crew to undergo a controlled assessment - and he is a staunch defender of the new legislation.
‘There has been a lot of discord about it but when you see it in action, it is such a benefit to chefs,’ he adds. ‘It’s not a course, it’s an assessment, a certificate of competence and a qualification. We have a just under 30% failure rate, which means 70% are passing, but some people need to go away and get more training and career development and then come back. The Ship’s Cook Certificate is not taking anything away from you, it’s only adding to any NVQs, City and Guilds or Michelin star qualifications you already have. It means that captains and owners have something tangible to see that you have reached a certain standard.’
Duncan is convinced that eventually most cooks and chefs will see the benefits too. ‘Out of 8,000 chefs in the industry, there are roughly 4,000 untrained chefs. People find confidence in knowledge and that is where training really comes into its own. We don’t want to make life difficult for people, we want them to be the best and guidance and a proper assessment of their abilities has got to be a good thing.
‘The work ethic in yachting is really high - it certainly was on Luna - and you take it for granted that this is the level across the board, but it’s not the same shore side and it can be lacking on board sometimes too.
‘One boat that shall remain nameless had their entire crew go down with food poisoning. They had to call the management company as a charter was arriving and other crew were drafted in to cover.
‘People imagine a dodgy kebab or curry when they hear food poisoning mentioned but it’s very serious and can kill. When you get sick with food borne diseases like campylobacter, which is found in chicken, small amounts of bacteria multiply in your stomach. It’s highly unpleasant but it’s not hard to prevent it.’
Duncan’s Top Tips for Food Safety
Don’t ever cook rice more than twice. You can reuse it to make egg fried rice but do not cook it a third time.
Don’t keep anything in the fridge for more than three days. A simple rule but this is one that will keep you safe.
Remember that bacteria still multiplies in the fridge but at a slower rate. For general food poisoning, you need lots of bacteria to make you ill.
Don’t ever wash chicken. If you wash it under the tap, the water hits the chicken and splashes everywhere, so if you put a sandwich down on the surface, you can pick up campylobacter very easily.
Cross contamination is rife. Always use colour coded chopping boards for meat and veggies.
Always wash your hands and wipe down surfaces.
Never store raw meat above cooked meat in the fridge.
The optimum temperature for food that has just been cooked is 75 degrees Celsius and 63 degrees Celsius is mandatory for hot holding (keeping food warm) and a legal requirement. If it falls below 63 degrees, it enters a danger zone where bacteria start to multiply.
Ships Cook Certificate: About Time or Waste of Time?
More articles from the Galley