Sunday, October 16, 2005

Chef overboard...

When I first saw the job listening for the position aboard the boat, all I could think about was how great it would be going into different ports and scouring the markets for local ingredients; I really had no idea what went into cooking aboard a boat and the difficulties or challenges that were involved.

In my first interview with the captain he was sure to be very clear that there were definitely challenges – one of them being that I would be giving up my personal space and sharing a room with the stewardess, another being that I wouldn’t be able to just come and go as I please as there always needed to be someone on the boat at all times, and we’d be at sea for almost two weeks straight, often times in rough water, when making the crossing from the Atlantic to the Caribbean. He said that it is difficult to find good produce in the Caribbean, the selection of fresh fish was limited, and meat was generally not of the best quality either and so I would need to provision the boat for the coming six months before leaving New York. I wouldn’t be able to just run out the door to grab some ingredient I might have forgotten, so I needed to plan ahead.

As the captain told me this, everything else that I wouldn’t have at my fingertips went through my mind too: China town, Union Square farmers market, Chelsea Market, Kalustyans, Sahadi, Arthur Avenue, Faicco’s, my butcher - Los Paisanos, my fish guys at Fish Tales, Murray’s Cheese, Blue Apron, Sullivan Street Bakery, the Family Store, Jackson Heights for Indian ingredients and all the kitchen supply shops in the Bowery… and this is just the short list! It’s actually difficult to imagine being without these places, because I’ve always had them available to me. I can walk out my front door and in a few blocks I have fresh pasta, fresh mozzarella, a great butcher, a fish market, middle-eastern markets, restaurants and ingredients…

and pizza….

Ok, just a side note. I love New York pizza and now I’d have to go six-months without it?

But I digress.

Not having these shops available to me is going to be a real challenge. There are so many things that I will need to stock up on: wonton and spring roll wrappers for hors-deouvres when there are parties, filo dough, pomegranate syrup, kuri leaves, curry pastes, kefir lime leaves, lemon grass, coconut milk and the hundreds of spices, oils and vinegars that currently make up my spice rack, cooking equipment and so on. But I have to consider that there are going to be space limitations on the boat. A six-month supply of Saifan Extra-Virgin Olive Oil would probably fill the entirety of my pantry space! How will I know what to bring?!

My step-dad and suggested that I go to a nautical bookstore and find some books for provisioning boats. I laughed at first and thought there wouldn’t be such a book… Well, silly me. I should know by now that there is a book for everything! I went into a nautical bookstore and approached the clerk and asked her if there were any books for cooking aboard a boat, there was an entire section on provisioning and cooking on boats! And in fact, the clerk told me that she had also cooked aboard a boat. Originally, she had planned on doing it for only six months, but her adventure ended up lasting eight years and she traveled all over the world. Huh. I see an uncanny parallel forming here… She told me that when I arrived in the port that I would meet a lot of other boat people; crew, chef’s, etc. and that it is really a community so I would end up making friends with these people. Also, when I went on to other ports chances were high that I would run into many of the same people again… I’m actually a very social and outgoing person, so this sounds really fun to me and I’m looking forward to it quite a lot.

I began reading my new stack of boat books with titles like “Kitchen Afloat”, “The Essential Galley Kitchen” and “Feasts Afloat: Recipes for Great Meals from Small Spaces”. I have to say, being a private chef in New York, cooking in small spaces is not too much of stretch… I’ve cooked in 4,000 square foot lofts where the kitchen was an afterthought and the dishwasher couldn’t be opened all the way because the door touched the opposing wall. I’ve cooked in a gorgeous, multi-million dollar apartment in tony Sutton Place, where the kitchen was the size of a small bathtub and had two giant, Romanesque pillars running through the center of it so that if you were standing at the stove you were enclosed by a pillar on the right, a wall on the left, and a pillar in the middle of the floor behind you. When you wanted to set something on the counter, you had to walk completely around one of the pillars. I’ve worked in kitchens stocked with all the best equipment; Viking stove, Sub Zero fridge, Cuisinarts, etc. and 2 feet of counter space. Kitchen challenges are nothing new. There was a little incident in a kosher kitchen where, after being assured that the kitchen was fully stocked (because I couldn’t use my own equipment since it’s not Kosher), I arrived to learn that the “stocked” part of the kitchen was the meat side – and I was doing a dairy menu. I’ve worked in kitchens in the middle of August, in a heat wave, with no air conditioning and no windows. I’ve done six course tasting menu’s with nothing more than butane camping stoves and proofing ovens. So, really, I think New York has prepared me pretty well for being spatially and environmentally challenged…

I am fascinated though as I start to reading through my new books. Essential Galley Kitchen is actually fantastic. It is packed full of tips and recipes for preserving and pickling. The book recommends using sprouting jars to sprout beans and herbs. There is a guide with soaking times, measures and days until ready, for sprouting everything from Alfalfa and Azuki Beans to Wheat and Rye; as well as recipes for the sprouts and a million other things. There are directions for making yogurt from powdered milk; the best way to store cheese and eggs to preserve there storage life; tips for smoking seafood and chicken; lists of fruits and vegetables that keep well for extended periods of time and provisions lists for dry goods, alcohol, cooking equipment, and tips and recipes for making “one pot wonders” (which, I’ve been informed by the captain, I should have prepared in advance for our journey across the ocean). There are so many things to think about!!!

I haven’t seen the boat yet and therefore have no idea what the kitchen is like. I don’t know how it is stocked presently but I have been told that I have a 4-burner Thermadore industrial gas stove and oven, a commercial size fridge and deep freeze and a Cryovac.

I know you are probably wondering why I haven’t seen the boat yet and actually the reason is that since getting the job, I went to California to visit my family and as soon as I returned to New York I got completely booked with catering jobs. I haven’t had a moments rest in almost three weeks! It’s been back to back events… But everyday I wake up and I think to myself, one day closer – and I get so excited!

I was out running errands today, shopping and prepping for two events. I was on the Upper West Side so I decided to take a walk down by the 79th Street Boat Basin. It was a pretty blustery day and while the boat I’ll be working on wasn’t there, looking out at the other boats bobbing up and down in the water – the first thing that came to my mind was, “oh lord, I had better get some Dramamine!”… Small kitchens, equipment and ingredient challenges, I can handle that part… But there’ll be one other equation in the mix aboard this boat – motion, baby! I have yet to cook in a kitchen that may very well be rockin’ and rollin’… And actually, the woman at the bookstore told me that I’m pretty much guaranteed to get motion sick. She said that the first time she cooked on a boat she would go up on deck and while catching some fresh air and trying to recompose herself she would think in her head what she would do next in the kitchen; ie, slice three potatoes, peel and chop garlic, peel two carrots… Then, she would run downstairs, complete the tasks she had set out in her mind, and then run back up on deck to get some fresh air and she did this until she finally conquered her sea sickness…

Friday is my last big catered event. I’ve passed the torch to the woman who has been my sous-chef and good friend for the passed year. She’ll be taking on my clients.

On Sunday I will be seeing the boat and meeting the crew for the first time…

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