Sitting in a careers class in Coventry 25 years ago, little did Simon Furey realise that one day he would make his name cooking the finest produce money can buy on one of the most sumptuous private yachts.
Simon is head chef on a 64 metre Benetti superyacht moored in Monaco that is home to a private owner and, after 14 years on board with the same family - something of a record in crew longevity - Simon is as passionate about food today as he was all those years ago.
‘I put my hand up to try catering college for two weeks trial and loved it,’ he recalls as we chat over coffee in Valbonne. Tanned from a recent stint in the Caribbean, Simon has come a long way since beating 350 classmates to win Student of the Year at Henley College of Further Education. He now works on rotation every two weeks alongside his fellow chef Paul, the perfect compromise between his career and family life with his wife Wendy and two children Jess, 18, and Matthew, 14, in Roquefort-les-Pins.
He spent five years in the restaurant of The Ritz in London, followed by stints at The Gloucester Hotel (now the Millennium Hotel) and The Lanesborough in Knightsbridge. But it was his talent for winning cookery competitions that paved the way for a career in luxury yachting.
‘I started competing in my spare time on days or weekends off,’ he recalls. ‘I won a gold medal at my first show in Birmingham, beating 2,500 spectators. In five years, I travelled all over England winning numerous awards. Then I started travelling further afield to compete in Canada, Ireland, France and America.’
Barely out of his teens, he entered National Chef of the Year in London and was the youngest entrant, making it into the final top 10. The ensuing publicity led to a call from Marjan Lesnik, the legendary chef at Claridges, who asked if he would like to cook for Prince Charles.
‘It was a party at a farm in the Cotswolds and Prince Charles was promoting British beef during the BSE crisis,’ Simon recalls. ‘I went with Marjan to do lunch and dinner and cooked for 30 top chefs from all over Europe. It opened a lot of doors for me. Marjan used to go on boats from time to time and my friend Terry was working as a steward on another big boat. They needed a chef to take over for a couple of weeks as their chef had broken his leg so I helped them out.’
Simon was introduced to the chief steward on his current yacht while it was still in the yard being completed and was flown to Italy for an interview with the captain, the purser and the chief steward. ‘We got on really well and went out for dinner afterwards,’ he says. ‘I had to give eight weeks’ notice on my job in London and they waited for me.’
Cooking for a host of big celebrity names soon became second nature to Simon and while going from a hotel kitchen to a galley posed no problems, sourcing fresh high quality produce further afield has remained his biggest challenge.
‘If you can cook, you can cook anywhere,’ he adds. ‘But moving from port to port and stocking the boat with good quality supplies is the hardest thing. The Caribbean is very hard for sourcing good produce. We ended up ordering from London on our last trip to Barbados because it was cheaper to get it air freighted to the Caribbean than to buy it locally, where it is horrendously expensive.’
The crew eat a high standard of fare, which is excellent for morale according to Simon. ‘The things that really matter to crew are food, internet access and living environment. My owner looks after the crew so well, she bends over backwards to make them happy.’
With 23 staff on board in the summer - twice as many as usual for a boat this size - it is the setting for many glittering parties and suppers with the Monaco Grand Prix the jewel in the crown.
‘It’s the busiest weekend of the year for us,’ says Simon. ‘We start a few days before with small lunches and dinners for 25 - 30 people, and on Sunday we do lunch for around 100 guests. I don’t go to sleep during that period. It’s a sit down meal spread over three decks, so we make platters of salads, meat, fish and dessert and everything has to look spectacular.
‘We spend a lot of weekends in Villefranche or St Tropez and we do a summer cruise with the owners’ friends to the Amalfi coast, Greece and Turkey.’
Career highlights include a birthday party in Mexico, when Simon and his colleagues had to organise 65 Mexican chefs for a three day party on the beach. ‘We were barbecuing on the beach in the sunshine while some amazing artists performed by the pool,’ he recalls. Simon keeps on top of his game by eating out as much as possible during his time off and isn’t afraid to volunteer in other chef’s kitchens.
‘My owners love all sorts of food, from Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese to ribs, roasts and traditional dishes,’ he reveals. ‘You have to keep an eye on what’s happening, you can’t just stay in the galley. Last year, I asked if I could work at China Tang at the Dorchester for three weeks to pick up some tips. I was getting in at 6am, taking photographs of the chefs prepping, and because I worked hard, I earned their respect and they showed me how to make dim sum by hand and prepare Peking duck over three days. You can’t buy that experience. I got so many ideas from them.’
He shows me video footage of chefs preparing ducks from scratch, basting them in sauce, hanging them up to dry out all day and frying them in a huge pan of oil to get them crispy.
He also points out a photo of a spiny lobster dish from the Sandy Lane in Barbados that he added to his repertoire after getting the tender across to visit the kitchen one evening and watch Sandy Lane’s Newcastle and Manchester born chefs at work.
‘On the summer cruise we did a Chinese dinner for 25 one evening,’ he adds. ‘Three of us made 10 different dishes including crispy duck the China Tang way. We were called upstairs and the guests all started clapping. They loved it.’
With a new boat ready for delivery in summer 2015, Simon is looking forward to an even more state of the art kitchen to experiment in. ‘It’s very high tech with automatic glass, surround sound, control buttons and different sections for different foods. The workmanship is amazing and everything is modular and on wheels so it will be much easier to maintain and look after. I can’t wait to cook in it.’
Your favourite chefs?
Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, who is not the best cook in the world but he is a brilliant businessman. I met Jamie when I went to Fifteen for lunch and I got to look around his kitchen.
Do you watch cookery shows on TV?
Yes, I love them, especially Food and Drink with Michel Roux. I tape them all and watch them at 6am before my wife Wendy gets up, because she doesn’t enjoy them!
Do you do all the cooking at home?
No, hardly any. If we entertain, I take over but otherwise my wife does it.
Your favourite place to visit on the boat?
Turkey. The scenery is fantastic, the water is amazing and we moor up in a small bay and go across to the markets. I once found mud lobsters so I bought 20 of them. The fishing boats come to the back of the boat and sell us their catch…sea bass, squid, prawns.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
You can’t buy experience or knowledge. If you have that, people will come to you.
* All photos reproduced courtesy of Simon Furey