Why, I would occasionally muse, would anyone want to cook on a yacht? Yet to be persuaded of the charms of sailing (is it because I’m a Canberragirl?), I add to that the clustered claustrophobia of an over-heated galley kitchen conducting a job high-pressured under ordinary circumstances – and the terrifying knowledge you cannot, should it all become too awful, just calmly walk away. That, however, was before I talked to Wil, Paddy and Ali.
Baby-faced Dubliner Wil Ennis is head of the kitchen at Byron Bay’s Italian at the Pacific restaurant; by his own admission he is ‘super easy-going’ and prepared to give most things a go. And so when a friend suggested a job on super-yachts the then 24-year-old trained chef thought he might give it a go for a month. He stayed for three years, cooking for a sheik whose full name he never even knew (‘We’d call him Triple A,’ says Wil), sailing mostly between Sardinia and the Seychelles. Seventy- two metres of boat, 26 staff and two to three chefs – although in the first year Wil didn’t do much cooking. By the second year ‘word had spread about the fantastic Irish chef cooking Italian’ so Wil was working harder. Quarters were ‘smaller than a prison,’ he tells me, with everyone sharing rooms – but unlike other chefs he never complained. And why indeed? Cooking for billionaires, film stars and Saudi Arabian princes; a boss who would often whisk him off to Michelin-starred restaurants for dinner or invite some of the world’s best chefs aboard; produce flown in from around the world; nothing to spend money on and two months’ holiday every year. ‘You met so many different characters,’ he tells me. ‘Every Christmas one friend of the sheik’s gave me 1 1/2 kilos of white truffles. All I had to do every morning was cook him eggs on the beach: six with truffles shaved over the top.’
Extravagant ingredients were just one of the charms of cooking on yachts for local chef Patrick (Paddy) Hobbs. Currently taking a break in order to pursue academia, Patrick tells me about the 10,000-euro budget per month for the crew of eight with whom he shared his super-yacht some seven years ago. The owners were retired Americans who divided their year between home in Florida and their yacht. ‘They had what was coined the “milk run” between St Tropez and Monaco,’ Patrick says, ‘which we probably completed fortnightly.’ Sardinia too was part of the itinerary and it blew him away. ‘I fell in love with Sardinia,’ he tells me, ‘We would be at anchor off the uber-rich Hotel Calle de Volpe… It truly was another world, and the island itself is just breathtaking.’ Specialty food items were frequently air-freighted from around the world for the owners and their guests; there was lots of partying; lemonade staved off seasickness; they ‘lived somewhat vicariously like kings’. Watching a whale dive underneath the yacht on one of the journeys from Cannes to Rome still resides in Patrick’s memory as one of the greatest joys.
Alison Drover – sustainable food consultant, marketing strategist and event designer – relocated from Sydney last year to the Northern Rivers, having spent about seven years cooking on yachts. She too recalls the pods of dolphins , the ‘wallpaper of sharks’ in Tahiti and ‘seeing manta ray flying through the air’ as among her most cherished experiences. Alison sailed in France, Corsica, Italy, Fiji, Portugal, South of England, Tonga, Cook Islands, Tahiti and French Polynesia, personal chef for families and individuals. ‘If I died tomorrow,’ she tells me, ‘it was the best thing I ever did and the most amazing adventures and challenges’ – which included bikini-waxing in the middle of the Pacific. More importantly, the challenges revolved around sourcing food then cooking it, especially in remote locations – and it was this which helped to shape her marketing company The Alison Principle: the discovery, in her words, ‘that sustainability and scarcity drive creativity and resourcefulness.’
So now I begin to understand why one might undertake such a job. At the very least, it has given rise to such wonderful stories, and such wonderful storytellers the more colourful and compelling for it.