Working as a sole Chef/Stewardess on a sailing yacht has been an exciting but great challenge. It has tested me in so many ways, both physically and mentally. Several times, I have provisioned for the 3500 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean; I have bartered for limited food supplies on remote Caribbean islands; caught deep sea fish for supper; rustled up banquets whilst surfing 16ft waves and hammering through 35 knots of wind over the bow. I have created canapés for large numbers of guests using minimal ingredients whilst heeling over at a twenty degree angle as the boat flies over the finishing line of an offshore race. I have survived weeks without stepping foot on land and somehow managed to concoct elegant plates of food with critically low provisions. Working in a two by two metre galley has taught me to stay organised.
In contrast, my childhood memories of cooking over open camp fires, constructing dens in the woods, carving wooden spoons from sticks and camping in Tee pees all came flooding back to me whilst I set up camp each evening from the back of my pick up truck as I drove east to west through the northern states of America.
I thought I would find provisioning and packing for an 8,000 mile road trip an easy task. However, choosing the minimal essentials on a very tight budget proved challenging. My planning has been a custom to ‘super yacht standards’ – cooking extravagant food, and purchasing ingredients with an unlimited budget, serving quality cuisine and ensuring excellent hospitality for yacht owners and their guests. I stepped away from one extreme as a chef, to the other end of the culinary scale and set about rustling up fodder over open camp fires in the remote wilderness of Northern America and Canada.
As I set about planning my latest adventure, budget, limited storage and minimal equipment were the three factors I found most dramatically different to when I was working at sea. Each morning and evening I would empty the contents of the truck, set up camp and build a fire, using dry leaves for kindling and logs I had trimmed from a tree or collected. It could be difficult to find dry wood, particularly in April with regular snow and rain fall. I would regularly dry myself after a lakeside swim beside the fire and set about chopping and preparing food. After boiling potatoes in a giant steel pot, I would wrap them in tinfoil with garlic, rosemary, olive oil and lemon and then bury them into the glowing embers of the fire to roast.
Coping without a fridge would affect my choice of food, depending on if the weather was hot or cold. As I drove further west the temperature increased; therefore buying meat wouldn’t always be a sensible choice. However, on the odd occasion I would choose a cut of chicken or fish as a treat. Dicing chicken breast and seasoning it with the few herbs and spices I had – usually Italian herbs, paprika, tamari and cayenne pepper – creating a delicious flavour. Threading the pieces of meat and vegetables onto kebab sticks, frying them on a hot oiled stone beside the fire, then finishing them off wrapped in tinfoil in the flames. Chopping a few seasonal greens into a salad with tomatoes and avocado would tastily accompany the potatoes and kebabs. I would enjoy the feast perched on a stone beside the fire watching the reflection in the lake and the sky gradually turn from pink to orange as the sun set.
I began each day by boiling oats and water in a small saucepan using the gas camping stove sat on the tail gate at the back of the truck. Served with banana, honey and a sprinkling of nuts, it was the most delicious, nutritious and cheapest breakfast that would set me up for the day ahead particularly before a long hike.
On one morning before a hike to the peak of Mount Robson, whilst sitting on the tail gate of my truck, eating my porridge with hot honey and lemon, there was a sudden rustling in the pine trees. An enormous Cinnamon bear came meandering out of the woods close by, snuffling in the grass for food. A certain children’s story sprang to mind! I was eating my porridge with a bear!
BBQing and building fires became a more frequent occurrence as the weather improved and the nights grew warmer. One evening, after a beautiful drive from Yosemite National Park to Bass Lake in California I was approached by a Mallard duck. He had waddled his way into my camp in search of something to eat. Little did he know, I had other ideas…! Let’s just say, wild duck slow cooked on a spit has to be one of the most delicious meals I have ever had.
During my time working on boats and living on the road I have had to improvise on many occasions! Whilst working onboard a sailing yacht, on a particular special occasion I made a birthday cake for a guest. I have know idea how I managed to achieve this as it was during a week of racing which is always hectic. It was a basic Victoria Sponge with homemade strawberry jam in the centre. To decorate, I lay a giant piece of rolled Royal Icing over the top. I got so far only to realise I didn’t have any decorating tools! I used blue food dye and toothpicks to paint on the particular deep blue hulled sailing boat and dramatic curling waves. The guest was pleasantly surprised and very appreciative.
The ability to be inventive with food, regardless of whether I am sailing in the middle of the sea, camping deep in the woods or back in the familiar comfort of my home, has become essential. Whether I am filleting a ten pound fish or plucking and dressing a Duck, I have learnt that it is important for me to utilise every scrap. Using a spoon, I would scrape the remaining meat from the spine that is left on a fish after removing a fillet. I have often used the bones of a bird for stock, stew or soup – Ideal if made in preparation for the late, rainy nights after a long drive and I am too tired to cook when setting up camp .
Written by Eliza Brown