Appetite for adventure: Yacht chef travels the seas cooking for the rich and famous
MIAMI ― Victoria Allman has whipped up chocolate chiffon cake for captains of industry and salmon tartar for Brazilian socialites. She has shopped for fresh produce at the crack of dawn in markets from the Bahamas to Tahiti. And she’s done it all with a smile while working 18-hour days pampering the wealthy aboard super yachts that travel the high seas.
Allman, 38, is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based chef who, as she puts it, has followed her stomach around the globe on five charter yachts for the past dozen years. Now she’s published her second cookbook/memoir, “SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain” ($15.95, Norlights Press), chronicling her journey with her husband on his first assignment as a captain.
Author Victoria Allman has written a book about her experiences, complete with recipes she has cooked and baked while sea bound. (Miami Herald/MCT)
At turns intimate, earnest, self-effacing and entertaining, SEAsoned describes the obnoxiously demanding couple who treat their dog as a child, a randy guest who tries to seduce one of the crew and a 5-year-old who makes a mean macaroni and cheese. It offers tale after gastronomic tale about perfecting the culinary craft in a tiny galley while pleasing a very picky bunch. Oh, and the book has recipes.
“All the stories are true,” Allman says with a laugh. “I’ve just left out or changed the names.”
In addition to the three daily meals and assorted snacks and party food she prepares for guests, Allman must also cook for the crew. She now works aboard the Cocoa Bean, a 140-foot yacht with a staff of nine. Her husband, Patrick Allman, is the captain ― and her boss.
Theirs is an exclusive clientele. Charter costs range from about $50,000 a week for a 100-foot yacht to $1 million for a 200-footer ― plus food and fuel costs that can run to the tens of thousands of dollars, Allman said.
Make no mistake about it. For all the pampered luxury that surrounds them, yacht chefs work hard, really hard. Their bosses ― guests who change almost every week ― expect top-notch service and gourmet food around the clock. If they want dinner at 5 a.m. after a night of clubbing in Cannes or St. Tropez, Allman must sprint from her bunk and cook it.
“It’s always with a smile,” she says. “It’s always the same answer, ‘Of course, no problem.’”
But doesn’t she get exhausted? Doesn’t she grow exasperated with the sometimes infantile demands?
“I like the adrenaline rush,” she says. “Every day is different, and I like that. I just can’t imagine myself working a 9-to-5 job.”
There’s also the element of gastronomic adventure. At every port, Allman has learned a new recipe, a new technique, a new spice. In the chapter “Love Da Tings You Do,” she writes about Vivian, a Bahamian woman who teaches her how to make coconut bread. The chapter is full of color and wisdom, including a quote for the ages from Vivian: “You gots to love the tings you do for people. I just love doing these tings. It isn’t work if you love it.”
One of her last chapters, “Marrakech Meanderings,” is as much travelogue as cookbook as she describes a typical Moroccan scene:
“Cauldrons of snails bubbled in broth, sending a woodsy aroma through the air. Roasted sheep’s head lay in wait of adventurous eaters. Carts heaped with dates, apricots and figs sat beside mountains of almonds and walnuts. Snake charmers lulled both serpent and audience with haunting melodies, while fire-eaters rallied the crowds with daredevil performances.”
“SEAsoned” is Allman’s sequel to “Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean,” which tracks her first season as a chef on luxury yachts. It’s a momentous year. Not only is she thousands of miles away from her Canadian home and family, but she meets her future husband, Patrick Allman, on her third day on the job.
Writing, like cooking, has always interested Allman, so she decided to wed the two interests early in her career. In addition to her two books, Allman blogs at victoriaallman.com and contributes regularly to Marina Life Magazine and OceanLines.
She also writes a column, “Dishing It Up,” for Dockwalk, a magazine for super-yacht captains and crew. In the June issue, she recounts her unusual adventure trying to smoke eight salmon fillets with a pistol-shaped contraption called the Smoking Gun. Trouble of the fire-extinguisher kind ensues.
Lauren Beck, Dockwalk editor, says Allman’s first story for the magazine, about cooking for a collection of crew members from various countries, was so popular that she was offered the monthly column.
“She knows how to put together a sentence and she’s got a great sense of humor,” Beck says. “She puts you right in the scene. You can really visualize what she’s writing about.”
Over a lunch of corn salad, bresaola (air-cured Italian beef), coconut bread and Key lime tarts ― all recipes from the new book ― Allman recounts her journey from her childhood home north of Toronto. She got her first restaurant job at 16, washing dishes.
The chef suggested a private culinary school and she applied, an unusual move in a town where the rest of her 29 high school classmates stayed in the immediate vicinity. After graduation, the 20-year-old headed for Calgary, where she worked at restaurants.
Though she loved the city, Allman hungered for new horizons. At the urging of a friend in yachting, she quit her job, leased out her condo and drove alone to Fort Lauderdale, a 3,300-mile, seven-day trek. Her parents were supportive, though neither had traveled far.
“Outside on one trip to Florida, my mother had not ever been on a plane,” Allman says.
She landed a job immediately, but acquiring her sea legs took a while. “You’re not just planning dinner for one night,” she said. “On a yacht, you’re planning for one week or three weeks and you have to order your provisions ahead of time.”
And some guests have unusual predilections. One businessman, for example, requested hot sauce, so she bought three bottles for the voyage, more than enough under normal circumstances. But “we were in Tahiti, in the middle of nowhere, and he used half a bottle at the first lunch,” she recalls.
She had more hot sauce flown in at an exorbitant price.
The Allmans spend about a month a year in their Fort Lauderdale home, which is chockablock with mementos of their travels.
“Our parents use this house more than we do,” she quips.
The rest of the time Allman and her captain travel from the South Pacific to Europe and every ocean in between. For them, it’s a dream come true.
“I’ve learned more from traveling,” she said, “than I ever learned in chef school.”
By Ana Veciana-Suarez
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)