How To Become A Super Yacht Chef

An Interview With Cookery School Tutor Amelia Hollis

Philleigh Way’s Amelia Hollis spent nearly a decade cooking at sea aboard some of the most spectacular super yachts to ever set sail, before returning to the UK and settling in Cornwall. Her experience cooking on various vessels, as well as in high end restaurants in London and Sydney, makes her the perfect person to lead our brand new five-day Yacht Chef Course, setting students up with all of the skills required for seasonal chef jobs at sea or in ski chalets. For anybody considering skilling themselves up for a stint at sea, we sat down with Amelia to learn more about her time working on boats – the realities of cooking in a galley for a hungry crew or super yacht owners, plus all of the incredible opportunities that come with the job.

philleigh way chef tutor amelia hollis

Were you a chef before going to work on boats, or was it a role that you took on once at sea?

After graduating from Leiths Cooking School, I started my career at a fine dining restaurant in Marylebone, London as a Commis Chef. A couple of years later I completed my STCW 95 course for the yachts (the basic safety training certification required by anyone looking for commercial work aboard vessels over 24 metres, such as superyachts and cruise ships) in the Isle of White and left for Antibes to search for a chef role on a super yacht.

yacht marina

How and why did you go to work on Yachts?

I had heard about yacht work through a family member who had been in the industry, and the thought of being able to travel the world as well as doing what I loved appealed to me greatly.

28 50, the wine bar and restaurant in Marylebone close to Oxford Street and Bond Street where I got my first chef role, was a great starting point for my career as a chef. It instilled in me a huge discipline and work ethic, and I learnt some incredible skills and knew for certain that this is what I really wanted to do. However, being 21 years old and having a twin at university, I knew in myself that I needed something more from my early twenties before really committing to the London chef life that was made up of 18-hour days and zero social life.

Where did the job take you, and what opportunities did you get as a result of it?

My first port of call was Antibes where I had to “Dock Walk” which is the term used for all green seafarers who have to find day work or, if you are lucky, a full time job on a super yacht. This is rather a daunting challenge, especially on your own. I was very lucky because the crew house I was staying in had an ex yacht chef agent running it and that resulted in me getting an interview over the phone. Two days later I found myself in St. Maarten in the Caribbean where I joined the 62 meter long Motor Yacht Sea Owl, a privately owned yacht. This boat took us all around the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and some of America. I was cooking for the 21-strong crew and helped the head chef when the family who owned it were on board. After four Atlantic crossings I was offered a job at Quay Restaurant in Sydney.

Motor yacht Sea Owl

After spending a year in Australia (the length of a working holiday visa) I then went back into yachting and landed a job on my second boat – Motor Yacht Senses. This was a very special boat in terms of where it was based and what the program offered us. We travelled around the Pacific Ocean visiting the most beautiful places, including Fiji and Tahiti. This is where I learnt how to surf and kite surf! After just over two years as chef on that vessel it was time for me to move back home to England.

Working on the yachts enabled me to buy my first home when I got back, and I decided to settle in Cornwall to stay close to the sea and continue to cook.

What are the main differences between being a chef on shore and cooking at sea?

It is extremely hard to compare the two jobs. Both require discipline, a great work ethic and a good skill set. Cooking on land teaches you the structure of commercial kitchens, patience, learning to cope with a strict hierarchy. It is very long hours and very limited social life. One of the most rewarding feelings is having completed a long service with a team that you love, knowing that you have brought food joy to a full restaurant of diners.

Cooking at sea is also demanding as you really are on your own and do not have the support of a team. You must do all of the ordering and provisioning in isolated places, all of the menu planning, and you have to cater for every dietary requirement under the sun. You must be flexible in every way, extremely patient and accommodating as timings and the menus can change at the drop of an owner’s request! What the owner says, goes. There is nowhere to hide, and you truly do have to show your skill and organisation as a chef. The financial rewards in yachting far exceed land-based jobs, though!

tropical beach

How did you manage the different requirements of feeding super yacht owners and guests, and feeding the crew?

This can vary depending on what size yacht you come to work on. Both yachts I was lucky enough to spend my time on had two chefs in the galley when owners were on board for a “Boss Trip”. We would work together as a team to feed both the crew and the guests. The most important thing is being organised for the guest trips with menus being pre-planned so we would have an idea of what we were going to cook throughout the weeks ahead for both sides. It changes all the time however, depending on what the provisions are like when they arrive, the guests’ requests, dietary requirements and what situations you may find yourself in such as storms, rocky seas, impromptu beach picnics and so on.
We would have our provisioning, menus and time management down to a T before guest arrival with an outline plan to follow so that whatever might be thrown at us, we could work around to make sure that everyone – both crew and guests – were eating the best food possible and as happy as could be.
Crew would always eat breakfast, lunch and dinner before the guests so that it was cleared and out of the way in the galley, then we could concentrate on cooking each meal for the boss and family, or guests.
The crewmembers on yachts eat extremely well, as they are the ones who need the fuel and motivation to continue working the long hours and demanding boss trips for weeks on end. Any allergies or dietary needs for the crew were catered for. There were always various options served family style to choose from in the crew mess – a happy and well-fed crew is a must!
As both of the boats that I worked on were privately owned, we would always have preference sheets on board for each guest and know exactly what the family likes and dislikes – from drinks, to snacks, to allergies basically everything is thought of to make sure that the experience was effortless and easy from the outside looking in. Nothing was ever too much and we never said “no”. The longer you stay on board the more you get to know the boss and how to cook for the family.

What were your signature or go to dishes when creating meals in a small space or with in a limited pantry?

Luckily when the owners were on board, we had no issues with a limited pantry as we would always be able to get what we needed. However, when on long passages such as crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific, when we would be at sea for two or more weeks without being able to provision after leaving the dock, I would have to be very clever with what produce we had available, what fresh produce would turn the easiest, and what would last the longest. For example, fresh salad leaves and potatoes! Organisation and planning were always key. Working on a boat you are pretty much always in a small space, but you definitely get used to your galley over time and how it works with the space that you have, and they are generally kitted out with what you need – adaptability is always very important. I would make fresh bread every day, healthy soups, I would generally follow a type of cuisine for each meal so Italian one day, Japanese the next, Mexican, Spanish and so on. My favourite go to menus were southeast Asian cuisine such as Vietnamese beef pho, pork laarb from Laos, rice paper rolls with chili dipping sauce, fresh Thai curries and coconut rice. I loved making Italian cuisine – fresh pasta dishes and fresh breads. Indian curries and fresh naan. It was always great exploring the area you were in cuisine-wise so I would always try and learn a dish or a few from the local area we would find ourselves in. One of my favourites was a very simple Tahitian dish called poisson cru.

Cooking on a yacht and cooking for the crew gave me free reign and inspiration to really explore the world of food and to push myself outside of my comfort zone. You have to change it up all the time otherwise the crew you are cooking for can get very bored, so making sure your repertoire is boundless and ever changing is hugely important.

Motor Yacht Senses

What transferrable skills do you develop cooking on a yacht perhaps for other seasonal cooking jobs, for chef work ashore or just for life in general?

There are many transferrable skills that you can develop, not only from cooking on a yacht but living on a yacht. It becomes your life, and you are living in a small space with many different personalities – some that you may not necessarily click with day in and day out. You learn self-awareness, organisation, time management, keeping tidy and clean, saving (most of the time you’re at sea and can’t even spend the money you make), and patience. You feel very privileged to have seen so much and humbled at what you get to experience and in the way you experience life. The people you meet and work with become your family and friends for ever, from all over the world. It opens so many possibilities not just in your career but in your personal life. It will push you to limits mentally that you never thought you could go to, and it makes you a stronger person.

yoga on a floating pontoon in the tropics

What Advice would you give to anyone wanting to do a season or pursue a career working on yachts?

It really is an opportunity that, if you have the chance to take, then take it. You have nothing to lose. If you figure out that it is not for you, which for some people it isn’t, then you can finish a season and go home. But if you fall into it solidly then it can be the start of an incredible journey and career that can change your world for the better. It’s not for the faint hearted and it takes a certain type to be able to cope with all the moving parts and all the rules, so you need to be sure that it is what you want. You don’t see your family very often, you have no solid home except for the boat, you have to share a small cabin with one or more people, it can be the most stressful job at times and you can get fed up very easily however it takes you to the most incredible places around the world, you make friends for life and from my experience it is something I would not have changed. It has taught me so much about myself as a person and as a chef, and given me the most wonderful memories and life.

If Amelia’s story has got you thinking about setting sail and working at sea on super yachts, or if you’ve got your heart set on a chalet season this winter, arm yourself with all of the kitchen skills required to make you indispensable and super-employable on our 5-day Yacht Chef course. Find out more and book your place, here.

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