By Jeff Avery.
In the spring of 2008, I started down a career path that just months earlier would have seemed impossible. The previous fall, I had taken steps to become a Merchant Mariner. I was a chef and had worked at every kitchen job there was, from washing dishes to grinding celery for egg rolls to making five gallons of Béarnaise sauce at a time. (Despite what the Food Network would have you believe, that career is not all unicorns and lollipops.) A prior stint two years earlier as a steward for the University of Rhode Island’s research vessel had given me a glimpse of what working at sea could be like. When the opportunity arose to move down that path I took it. I was hired to be the Chief Steward on the Oceanus, one of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessels. And I haven’t looked back.
Don’t get me wrong; I love being a chef. I love exploring new foods and making people happy. Food is the great peacemaker. It’s hard to stay mad over fresh strawberries with homemade vanilla ice cream drizzled with dark cherry balsamic vinegar. I love introducing people to the best oysters and explaining how terroir is just as important to food as it is to wine. I love the magic of turning four ingredients into crème brûlée. Working in a restaurant, I hated never seeing my family, never having a holiday off, and working long hours in stifling heat. Working at sea has given me the best of what I love and virtually eliminated most of the things I don’t.
Getting My Feet (more than) Wet
My first real sea voyage lasted six months, leaving Woods Hole on the ninth of July 2008 and returning on the 22nd of December. I traveled to Barbados, Cape Verde, the Canary Islands, Saudi Arabia, Gibraltar, St. Thomas, and Bermuda.
I ate flying fish sandwiches, the best polpo you can imagine, real paella, camel, and seafood galore. I caught mahi-mahi, tuna, triggerfish and cooked them all. Delicious! I met talented scientists, interacted with locals, visited fish markets and produce markets, and did some amazing hikes. I learned the challenges of ordering for a trip at sea and receiving orders in foreign ports, what to do when you really, really need a gimballed oven, as well as how awesome a simple can of soda could be in a village with no roads on an island off the coast of Africa.
Ordering for a restaurant is fairly straightforward. You know your most popular items and have a list of dairy, produce, meat, and fish to order for the next day or week. When things get low or run out you can have them delivered that day or the next, depending on the purveyor. On a ship, you can throw that strategy out the window. There is no Stop & Shop and the produce guy does not deliver 1,000 miles out at sea. The planning is paramount, the math exact. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, things you count on are not available, like pork. The math of feeding 30 people for 30 days becomes important. On average you have to budget for six ounces of meat per person per meal, or 18 ounces a day, or 1,012 pounds of meat for the month, divided among chicken, pork, seafood, beef, and lamb. Usually you add 10% to ensure you don’t run out.
With produce, it’s even more difficult. At a restaurant, you might need 80 pounds of lettuce to keep the salad bar fresh for a month, but on a ship the lettuce will keep for only two weeks, same with cucumbers and tomatoes. So you work out a progression of vegetables: the first two weeks you are serving fresh vegetables, then frozen, then canned. If you run out of those it means you are drifting somewhere in the Atlantic and nobody knows where you are so you won’t have to suffer the canned items for long.
Restocking happens every month or so, and good luck getting what you thought you ordered on remote islands like Cape Verde. A scratch cooking background here is vital because you won’t be getting premade marinara sauce or even cut up chickens. Oh no! The chickens were delivered whole, still warm, with heads and feet attached, in garbage bags! They were, perhaps, the most delicious chickens I’ve ever cooked, but a couple of scientists almost became vegetarians.
The Perils of Procurement Protocol
Ordering is done through a type of vendor called a chandler. There is generally at least one and sometimes as many as a dozen chandlers, depending on the port. This is the guy “who can get you what you need,” as he will supply everything for that stop. Oil? He’s got it. Some small, obscure valve with a gasket you need to make the crane run? He’s got it. Groceries? He’s your man.
My spreadsheet is split into five parts: dairy, produce, meats, frozen, and dry goods. I take inventory a week before port stop and estimate what I’ll need for the next leg of the trip. Once complete, I submit the spreadsheet to the assigned chandler. In roughly two days, I receive an estimate and then the real work begins. I review the order line by line to ensure it matches the chandler’s because while the language of food may be universal, the description of food isn’t. If I am not careful I might get something drastically different from what I ordered or something I may not recognize, and the label won’t help because it’s written in the country’s native language. (I am really sorry I skipped Ms. Diaz’s Spanish class my entire junior year.)
Needless to say you have to review the order carefully, identify things you don’t recognize, and clarify with the chandler. All this is done over email, a long and difficult process, with a language barrier to boot. To solve that problem, I added an image of each product to the spreadsheet to give the chandler a visual of the requested item.
Whipping cream is presweetened, thus useless for cooking. Instead, I had to order cooking cream. Sour cream? That’s a no-go; it’s going to be crème fraîche, but not quite crème fraîche, rather some combination of the two. Pork shoulder? Sorry, a bag of pork chunks that is easily 75% fat is what arrived. I need to order fresh ham, not to be confused with an actual ham, because then I get a giant salted Serrano ham with hoof attached. Though absolutely delicious and I carve a little every day for breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, I can’t get rid of it and it takes up too much space.
Produce is another region of confusion. I didn’t know that eggplants are called aubergines outside of America. Cilantro is coriander, summer squash is yellow zucca. And from a shelf-life perspective, very challenging. We’d tend to buy things that last for a week or more. In most of Europe, shopping is done every day and produce isn’t geared for longevity. The romaine is a loose-leafed lettuce that we would consider bolted. It lasts for about four days. The tomatoes are delicious. Five days. Fantastic strawberries full of flavor? Better use them now. You end up planning how far you are from the next stop and hitting farmers’ markets as much as possible.
The last part of the chandler struggle is the delivery itself. Again, I only speak English and the driver’s primary language is local. They all speak a little English (something that embarrasses me a bit as an American) so that helped. We’d look through the order together. A smartphone was essential because if I received the wrong product, I asked what it was, they pointed it out on the slip, and I popped up a picture of what I actually needed. Sometimes the chandlers knew it right away, made a call, and prepared to make a second run. Often, they had no idea what their equivalent was. I had an engineer vital to the operation who loved Marshmallow Fluff. Horrendous stuff, and we couldn’t get it. I can say with some certainty that the rest of the world has no idea what Fluff is, giving me hope for the future. Alas, we had it shipped from the U.S.
We had petty cash on the ship I could use for local purchases, and I took full advantage whenever possible to visit markets and grocers. In America, we have this special feeling and rituals about farmers’ markets. We go on Tuesday from 10-2, gush over the fresh tomatoes and beans, gurgle with joy about the kale that was just picked, and determine how to spend our annual CSA dollars. I have bad news for you: we are rank amateurs at this. Other countries do not consider these markets unique. They are not heavily regulated, so buyers learn what not to buy and how to avoid the less reputable vendors.
There were always fresh offerings depending on the port. The fish market in Cape Verde had a variety of fish, shellfish, and octopus caught that morning in waters a few miles away. In Barbados they had organic basil picked that day. The market in Grand Canary had over 200 varieties of olives. I’m not a fan of olives in the U.S., but in Spain? Oh boy! Olives stuffed with pimientos, fresh tuna, white anchovies, parsley pesto. Olives the size of the tip of your pinky or big as cherry tomatoes, smoked olives, pickled olives, dry-cured olives, olives marinated in the juice from Serrano hams. No two tasted the same and all were incredible!
Imagine you are baking a chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. You assemble the ingredients, weigh them out, and prepare the oven and pan. The organizing, preparation, and actual baking are all pretty straightforward. Now imagine that a giant has gripped your house by its foundation and lifted one side four feet into the air. Another giant does it again on the other side. Repeat. In the oven, your cake slides from one side to the other, spills out, never rises, and you realize you would have been better off with a frozen cake.
Coffee is also a challenge because it still pours straight down, except now the coffee pot isn’t directly beneath it. That’s what it was like cooking on the Oceanus. It was a difficult environment to get used to. We used clamps and rails on the stove, wedges in the oven, and non-skid material everywhere. At one point, the meat slicer slid off the counter and across the floor. You couldn’t accurately weigh things because of the movement. You had to look at the lowest weight versus the highest weight and figure the average. When you were successful though, it was doubly sweet.
I learned to adjust, communicate better, and identify exactly what I wanted. When the operation became more efficient and streamlined, it freed me up to explore the places where we landed. I went on an incredible hike in Cape Verde: 14 kilometers down a mountain into a valley with banana farms and a village built on a ridge. Like stepping back into the 1800s, the locals cooked over coals and had no roads or transportation. They shopped in Ribeira Grande and carried everything over a dry riverbed to the village. After six hours of hiking, hydrating, and exploring, we found a mercado in the village and I had the greatest drink of my life: a pineapple Fanta.
Circumstances enhanced the experience a lot. In the Canary Islands, we visited a village where a farmer was making small-batch goat cheese to sell to the local bars. He sold us a wheel. Now, I like cheese and love walking into a cheese shop, absorbing the aroma of the fromage. But this goat cheese from this small village on a mountainside on this island was a transforming experience. The single best cheese I have ever eaten, creamy yet piquant. We ate it with local honey and figs picked off the tree. Now, I am always seeking similar experiences.
In Saudi Arabia juice is elevated to a level I don’t think we can touch. Alcohol is forbidden, and juice is what they drink at parties, dinner, etc. Fresh-squeezed sugar cane, fresh-squeezed citrus, fresh-squeezed fruits, everything fresh, fresh, fresh. A local berry and lime juice drink was sprinkled with a cinnamon spice mix. Superlative.
I realize that after ten years working as a ship’s steward, I missed the opportunity to become a restaurant’s executive chef. And that’s okay because I hope to never do that again. The skills acquired over years in the restaurant business have only improved and been enhanced by my job on the high seas. I now can make authentic Turkish khufti, Singaporean black pepper crab, Mediterranean plates with outstanding condiments, Caribbean jerk fish, Filipino pancit—items, that in my restaurant career, didn’t exist for me. I paid attention everywhere I traveled and became exposed to cooking methods I never imagined. My career at sea made me a better chef in almost every way.
Choosing to work at sea was one of the best decisions I ever made: travel, exposure to new foods and culture, and experiences around the world. I’ve traveled to 25 countries on five continents, eaten lunch under an erupting volcano, swum in all of the original seven seas, had my picture taken at 0° latitude by 0° longitude, and eaten oysters in Namibia. I have enjoyed myself and grown both personally and professionally. Here’s to a few more years…
Jeff Avery started as a dishwasher and worked his way up the ranks. Currently exploring the world on various oil tankers and research vessels, he brings a love of travel, joy of meeting new people, and the pleasures of eating fantastic food to his family, friends, and now, you.
Article and photos reprinted with permission from edible Cape Cod and Jeff Avery and edited slightly from the original.