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Ship's Cook Certificate: About Time, or Waste of Time?

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Two years on, we have a clearer idea of the requirements for the Ship's Cook Certificate for yacht chefs, but there is still some confusion around the process and the criteria for prior learning. Many chefs are also intimidated by the prospect of sitting the Ship's Cook Assessment.

With the help of Secrets de Cuisine in France and Tante Marie in the UK, we revisit our article, first published in August 2014, to clarify what's involved and do away with the myths.

Updated January 2017


In the galley of a superyacht anchored in a bay in Mallorca, a chef is busy mangling a fish. The guests sit at a table setting of crisp white linen, enjoying the breeze as it comes off the water and eagerly anticipating the fish they've just caught to be cleaned and grilled for their lunch. To their knowledge, all is well in the galley, as their new chef is apparently 'great with seafood.'

Time passes. The stewardess brings more bread, and fills the wine glasses with pale rosé for the third time. She tries to smile reassuringly at the guests, as they begin to grumble lightly at the delay. 'Has she gone to catch more fish?' one asks. Everyone laughs, but no one really means it.

The stewardess goes back to the galley, to find the chef in tears and a butchered fish carcass in the sink, with a small pile of ragged fish flesh on the cutting board next to a stray bit of fish guts and a small pool of blood. On the side, another three whole fish wait to meet their ugly fate. 

'I've never gutted a fish', the chef wails. 'I lied on my CV'. The stew goes to fetch the captain, who arrives in the messy galley and promptly swears to himself, recalling that when she had done her job trial he'd asked her to cook lamb, his favourite. He took her at her word that she was 'good with fish.'

gutting a fish shutterstock 300The captain takes over and guts and grills the remaining fish, while the still weeping 'chef' is put in charge of vegetables. 

That girl was quickly fired, unsurprisingly. What is surprising, however, is how often this kind of situation occurs on superyachts, particularly in the smaller size bracket.  

When we walk into a good restaurant, we tend to assume the chef is professionally trained. Yet, oddly, the same cannot be said for guests sitting down at a superyacht table and according to Joey Meen of the PYA, statistics back in 2014 showed that around 44% of yacht chefs had no formal qualifications at all. 

As a result, there were entry-level chefs claiming that they could cook, ruining guests' holidays with sub-standard food. I'm not saying it was/is a common problem but, at this level, it just shouldn't happen at all. 

Yet until the implementation of the Ship's Cook Certificate as part of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) on 7 August 2014, yacht chefs needed no formal cooking qualifications other than a Food Hygiene Certificate. 

The Ship's Cook Certificate was created with the purpose of ensuring cooks on commercial vessels have the basic skills and knowledge to cook for the crew onboard, rather than being a course to teach superyacht-standard food for guests. However, in this industry, there is a large overlap between the crew and guest food, and it is vital that all onboard chefs have these basic skills regardless of who they are cooking for. 

“The Ship's Cook Assessment is designed to ensure a basic minimum standard – it is not designed to catch people out and it is not a particularly difficult assessment. If you know how to cook and you operate best practice, there is no reason why you will not pass the assessment” explains Andrew Maxwell, MD of Tante Marie Culinary Academy.

He continues, “It is a Level 2 assessment, which is basic. At Tante Marie we wrote a new Level 2 qualification to run alongside Gordon Ramsay’s Brixton Prison programme, ‘Behind Bars’. A lot of the inmates who were put through this course could not even read or write! Level 2 is basic and is nothing to be afraid of and it makes ships cooks more employable!”

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There is still confusion and concern surrounding this legislation but two years on we have a clearer picture of the requirements.

Cedric Seguela of Secrets de Cuisine comments, “There was, understandably, a fair amount of negative reaction to the course in the first year, and it has taken time to get the message across that this is a necessary part of galley training that is here to stay. Slowly, good reviews for the assessment have filtered through and helped win supporters, and we have received some amazing feedback from candidates. One chef who passed the assessment summed it up well:

‘I feel like I have been tested but I never felt that what was being asked was beyond reasonable expectations of a chef or the MCA ships cook criteria. The instructors bring ample skills and teaching ability to the course providing a well-rounded preparation for the assessment phase. The written exam is thorough and tests depth of knowledge. Both practical assessments were enjoyable and I particularly appreciated how hard both instructors work to keep you at ease under exam conditions.’ “

Who needs the Ship's Cook Certificate?

Q. Does your yacht regularly run with 10 or more crew?
Q. Is your yacht commercially registered: ie, does it charter?

If you answered yes to both questions, then the chef on your yacht must now hold a Ship's Cook Certificate.

The official deadline has been extended and chefs who hold the old Certificate of Competency now have until 2019 to convert it. Those without the Certificate of Competency must get it as soon as possible.

The MCA has also confirmed several times in the past two years that a formal competency check via the Ship's Cook Certificate of Competency is mandatory, unless in the rare case you hold a SVQ/NVQ Level 4 to UK standards.

Chefs who have existing qualifications may not need to complete the full course and you can seek clarification by contacting an assessor such as Tante Marie Culinary Academy in the UK, or Secrets de Cuisine in France, who will be able to confirm.

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Flag States and the Ship's Cook Certificate 

The Ship's Cook Certificate is accepted by all flag states, including the Cayman Islands Shipping Registry. There has been some confusion over the requirements of Cayman flagged vessels but, James Hatcher, Policy Officer and Shipping Master confirms, “We require advanced training* in food hygiene and preparation for any ships cook where the vessel is MLC compliant and carries 10 or more crew. However, there is no specific requirement on our vessels for a Ship's Cook Certificate, provided they have evidence of the advanced training which can be done onshore.” 

*NOTE:  For Cayman flagged vessels the required NVQ Level may vary from country to country and provider to provider and the Cayman Islands Shipping Notice (July 2014) will be amended to reflect this. 

How do you get a Ship's Cook Certificate? 

To apply for your MCA Ship’s Cook Certificate of Competency you will need to provide:

  • STCW including proficiency in security awareness

  • ENG1

  • Proof of at least 1 month’s sea time

  • Proof of at least 1 year as a chef or as a cook in professional working environment

  • Certificate of successful completion of the assessment in marine cookery

  • Class-based Food Safety Level 2

  • Attested or certified copies of these documents will need to be sent to the MCA to receive the Certificate of Competency

An application form for the Ship's Cook Certificate can found here

What does the Ship's Cook Certificate of Competency involve?

The course consists of two days for checking basic skills such as the preparation of seafood, chicken, pastry and basic dishes, followed by a half day focused on budgeting, food safety and allergies. See the full list of tested skills here (pages 9-19).

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How you go about getting your Ship's Cook Certificate depends on which of the following four categories you fall into:

Are you already professionally qualified as a chef and have worked on a yacht for at least one month?

If you answered yes, and are qualified to the required standards, you will simply have to fill out a form to receive your Ship's Cook Certificate from the MCA. 

However, there are very few qualifications out there which include all the elements required under MSN 1846, such as ‘dietary requirements for shift workers’ but, under the provisions of ‘accredited prior learning’, some assessors are able to ‘plug the gap’ so that you can top up your existing qualification and then do the assessment.

Therefore, except in the rare case that you hold a SVQ/NVQ Level 4 to UK standard you will need to sit the assessment.

Are you professionally qualified and hoping to get your first job on a yacht? 

If you answered yes, the MLC requires that you have one month of sea service first. 

As above, except in the rare case that you hold a SVQ/NVQ Level 4 to UK standard you will need to sit the assessment.

Are you unqualified as a chef, but have more than one year's experience in the galley of a yacht? 

In this case you will have to attend the two and a half day assessment of your skills.

Are you unqualified as a chef, but have more than one year's experience in a kitchen ashore?  

You will have to get one month's sea service and attend the two and a half day assessment. 

A cook who is untrained and has no yachting experience is highly unlikely to get a job on a charter yacht with a crew of over 10, so this is almost a moot point. However, chefs who are professionally trained or not, can still work on yachts with under 10 crew without holding a Ship's Cook Certificate, and progress to larger yachts with additional training.

The change that must come

What is likely to happen is that the Ship's Cook Certificate will become the benchmark certificate for those looking for jobs as yacht chefs. There is an obvious precedent for this: Despite the fact that STCW and ENG1 certification first applied to MCA yachts, they quickly became industry standard, and crew placement agents now require all candidates to have these basic qualifications. 

The certificate will also help counteract the many forgeries in the sector: made-up cooking courses, phoney references - even 'pity references', which are a common problem in this industry due to friendships onboard. Many a time I've seen someone fired for incompetence, but leaving with a glowing reference due to the captain 'feeling bad'. 

More broadly, “Gaining such a qualification provides great career enhancement and enables chefs to aim for better jobs. The MCA Ship's Cook Certificate is not only a legal requirement, it sets a level playing field on which captains/recruiters rely when making hiring decisions.” adds Cedric Seguela.

Is 'self-taught' ever good enough?

Tante marie 2 300Many of the yacht chefs I know are self-taught, and they are extremely good at their jobs. Their owners love them and charter guests applaud and ask for recipes. But if you ask them if they were good when they started out, they will laugh and tell you about the sheer stress and stomach ulcers of their first few seasons, burning food and fingers and pretending they knew what they were doing.  

Learning through trial and error, Googling 'how to make béchamel sauce' and, in one case, not knowing how to cook steak as the chef in question was a vegetarian, are all familiar tales. 

All seem funny now, but it's unlikely the guests thought so at the time as they ate lumpy sauce and overcooked meat while paying handsomely for the privilege. 

Without curriculum courses, self-taught cooks will almost inevitably result in people cooking the types of food they like best, at the risk of ignoring the things they find difficult. The problem with that is that a chef on a charter yacht needs to have core skills across a wide range of cuisines. You're a self-taught chef who specialises in Asian food but hates making desserts? Have fun with those Russian charters. Qualifications allow chefs to be generalists first, specialists second. That’s how it should be. 

Another outcome of this certification is that it requires chefs to know about food allergies, special diets and religious dietary requirements. With this becoming more prevalent among owners and charter guests, as well as crew, it's vital that a chef really knows what they are doing in this regard. Many think they know how to cater to a gluten free diet, only to put soy sauce or pre-grated cheese on their dishes. (Look it up.)

The point is, we don't want the engineer to be self-taught, we don't want our doctor or electrician to be self-taught and we don't give professional jobs to those who say they don't have a degree, even if they have read a lot of books. Most careers require standardisation, with experts stipulating what skills need to be mastered in order to make someone qualified for their job. 

Don't get me wrong, 'learning outcome: preparation of vegetables' as found in the Ship's Cook Assessment course is not going to make a yacht chef, and there is no question that many chefs who are forced to do it will roll their eyes, and feel they have learnt nothing. What it does do is ensure that chefs who are cooking for the richest (and often fussiest) people on earth, have the basic skills to build upon; which includes knowing how to gut a fish.

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This is not an attack of self-taught yacht chefs in favour of those who got their training in a college or restaurant, but cheffing in a galley is a very different job to that of a chef in a professional land based kitchen. 

An example:  A self-taught chef (the ex-vegetarian) was called back to one of her past yachts by the captain to teach their new, Michelin restaurant trained chef how to be a yacht chef. Apparently he'd been having real problems with provisioning and stock control, was struggling to manage his time to include prep and cleaning, and was serving the crew one simple bowl of pasta each night, as he  would have given to his staff in his restaurant kitchen.

So the professionally untrained became the trainer of the professional. This serves to show that it's not necessarily the case that professionally trained chefs are superior to those who trained themselves on yachts, simply that the odds favour their cooking skills being more well rounded due to 2-3 years spent in a culinary school.

It's not so bad, after all

This legislation could have done a lot of damage to yacht chefs and disrupted the industry terribly. In the Ship's Cook Certificate's original form, created for commerical ships, qualified chefs would have had to sit an assessment of several weeks, and non-qualified chefs would have had to go to school for a year. The minimum service period would have been five years. 

Through negotiations with the MCA, the PYA (Professional Yachting Association) is responsble for wrestlng it down to what we see today: a conversion certificate, a two and a half day course, and a one month sea-service requirement. For that, they should be congratulated. 

It’s a fact that the yachting industry is evolving, becoming more regulated, with fewer opportunities for the untrained. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that it's not such a bad thing. I'm guessing that yacht owners and guests, sitting on the aft deck waiting for their dinner, might just agree.

For the full MCA merchant shipping notice pertaining to the Ship's Cook Certificate, please click here.

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