I’ve just returned from a trip through the West Indies and my post as a chef on a private sailboat. I know I have several times quoted the first pages of Moby Dick, where Ishmael says he knows it’s high time for him to get to sea when he finds himself walking down the street spontaneously knocking people’s hats off their heads. I wasn’t quite at that point – but I was sorely in need of some sea time.
I flew in and out of Antigua, but our trip took us north to Saint Martin’s and St. Barths for New Years, then back down the island chain to Dominica, St. Lucia and the Grenadines. Sailing on such a large boat is a lot different than being on 34-footers. The mainsail and the foresail are controlled hydraulically. The winches are massive. At the end of the trip we took the sails off so they could be examined and repaired before our next sail, and it took five people to do it. We got them on the dock, then folded and rolled them. With all the muscles in my body, I still couldn’t even help lift the foresail.
So we sailed a lot, but I wasn’t really there to sail. I was there to cook, and I cooked my little buns off. Or, actually, I didn’t. I gained 10 pounds in those five weeks. Running was not on the agenda. In fact, I rarely got off the boat except to purchase ingredients, so what I know of St. Lucia is that local people – mostly women – come into town and sit along the streets selling fruit and vegetables on Saturday morning. You can find green onions, christophene (aka., chayote) and ginger. In Dominica there’s a Saturday market too, but if you miss it you can get local produce at the IGA supermarket: massive avocados, tomatoes, arugula and thyme. If you sail as far as the Tabago Cay, you’ll probably be approached by a fisherman selling lobster and tuna, and a bread boat advertising baguettes and croissants.
Before I left my friend Greg asked what my goals were for the trip. I had to stop and think. I’d had so much writing work leading up to the trip that I hadn’t had much time to prepare. “To raise the bar,” I said. “To cook more complex food.”
My proudest moments involved desserts. On the first night I made a cold coconut souffle with a mango puree. I made this bavoir on the second night of the trip. I made the mistake of serving it a bit too soon so that it was a little gelatinous. At the end of the trip, while defrosting the freezer, I hauled the rest of it out and sliced it up for the captain’s family. To make sure the texture was right, I took a blow dryer to each plate. I made a perfect creme caramel for the first time. (Not sure why I’ve never made this super easy dessert before.) On the last day I made a blackberry-balsamic semifreddo based on this recipe, but using brandy because that’s what I had onhand. I can highly recommend all of these as easy, refreshing desserts. They can all be made ahead and frozen or fridged until the right moment.
On New Year’s Eve I attempted to raise the bar by making a few recipes from the Eleven Madison cookbook. I had to scale back on some of them. I didn’t have agar-agar or edible flowers and ingredients were not always easy to find, or keep fresh. In fact, I have not cooked very much in a tropical climate, so the biggest challenge for me was dealing with the fact that fruit and veggies are in a constant state of rot. I don’t mean “slowly dying” in the sense that Magnus Nilsson would talk about a mushroom. I mean stuff goes from not ripe to ripe to rotten from one day to the next. You must be constantly vigilant. You may buy an avocado for a specific dish, but you might not be able to make the dish on the day you planned.
At the end of my trip another sailboat chef took me to the airport and on the way I asked her for ideas. “Kielbasa, salami and smoked salmon,” she said. I had accidentally bought a massive smoked salmon thinking it was raw and meaning to cure it and make gravad lax. It turned out to be one of my smarter purchases. It didn’t rot, didn’t have to take up precious freezer space and could be used in omelets, quiche, and appetizers. In fact, I realized how smart it was to have cured meat and the lomo I made was addicting.
Yesterday I asked the Uber Chef for some ideas on cooking techniques I could use on the boat, given the restrictions I had. Since the oven on the boat doesn’t stay lit at low temperatures, he suggested a portable dehydrator. Since I have access to an induction burner, he suggested getting metal boxes apparently used like bamboo steamers in Asian restaurants, and use them like a circulator. So I already have a new arsenal of tricks I plan to use on my next trip.
We were on our way to cater a party for a Hollywood celebrity, where we made items from the menu at the restaurant he’s helping to open this year. It wasn’t complicated food. We made miniature plates of beef rendang; we put snapper on sushi rice cakes that were dredged and deep fried and then topped it with a pineapple sauce; we made lettuce wraps and fresh spring rolls and coconut flan. They loved it. It was another reminder that you can apply complex tricks, use liquid nitrogen or agar-agar, but at the end of the day what’s most important is flavor.
The photos above are from the New Year’s Eve dinner.