Superyacht chefs bring Asian flavours on board
Southeast Asia based superyacht chefs take a crack at local delicacies while entertaining high net worth guests from around the world.
Charter a superyacht in the Mediterranean, and you’ll get a spectacular dining experience, created by top-tier chefs who have access to relatively small, but fully equipped kitchens. They’ll prepare fantastic Mediterranean cuisine, to be sure. But charter a superyacht in Southeast Asia, and you’re likely to encounter something quite different: western chefs exploring the wild tastes to be found in local Southeast Asian wet markets.
“I immerse myself in the local cuisine when I arrive in a country and look for traditional recipes for that area,” says Emma Sheltron, the chef aboard the sailing superyacht Bliss, which is on charter in Southeast Asia via Burgess. “Often, I’ll go in a local restaurant and ask to watch what they’re doing, and learn from them.”
Superyachts offer their owners and charter guests the local flavor of remote beaches and islands – destinations that are often far off the beaten track and out of range from luxurious accommodation. But with the help of an enterprising onboard chef, equipped with the latest kitchen tech, guests can still enjoy fivestar dining off the back of the yacht.
For the western chefs who find themselves working on charter yachts in Southeast Asia, the discovery process often yields some tantalizsing delights using ingredients ranging from insects to exotic fruits.
Bliss, the 37-metre sailing yacht, has spent most of its time cruising from Phuket to Bali and according to Sheltron, the onboard specialties she’s created have reflected the places and faces she’s met along the way. Among them are traditional Thai dishes, salads made with the huge variety of tropical spices and fruits, dishes featuring all manner of market-bought shrimp pastes and of course, an Indonesian Sambal (hot sauce), which Sheltron learned how to make while visiting a local island.
“Since cruising Asia, my style has most definitely changed,” says Grant Bentley, chef aboard the 60-metre private yacht, Event, reportedly owned by Evergrande Real Estate chairman Xu Jiayin. Bentley has worked in restaurants since age 15, with time spent in Michelin starred kitchens of Gordon Ramsey, Albert and Michel Roux, and Michael Caines MBE. “Freshness of ingredients is foremost here, which is good for a chef because you can let the ingredients shine without masking them with heavy sauces. I took inspiration from the use of umami, creating a whole new depth of flavor.” Bentley says that he was trained in classic French cooking style, with a reliance butter and heavy sauces, but that cooking has moved to lighter, healthier fare, which suits his experiences in Southeast Asia.
Another adapted treat is insect-based food. Sheltron says such dishes are more commonly found in Thailand and though not for everyone, worth a try at least once. For Chef Richard Eldon, who runs the kitchens aboard the 58-metre classic motor yacht Marala (built 1931) and the 50-metre Northern Sun for the same owner, being a superyacht chef in Asia meant getting back to Asian cooking after nearly 25 years away.
That reacquaintance has meant some rather exotic dishes passed from Eldon’s galley. “For the more adventurous, I have found sand worms southern curry, bubble seaweed with nam jim, southern sour curry soup and horseshoe crab egg salad. Other delicacies might include wood cockroaches used in mushroom soup, small worms used in mango salad, cooking in bamboo as well as silver ear mushroom salad.”
While superyacht chefs are able to come up with pretty much anything, most guests, especially from western countries, keep to the comfort food. “Most of our clients request Thai food, or (food from) the
region we are sailing in. I adapt to all the guests’ needs when necessary, but hopefully they still come away with an appreciation of the food,” says Eldon. “Most of our clients are concerned with diets, so I tend to do healthy food as a rule,” says the British-canadian chef.
For Sheltron, her Thai clients will want Thai food, which suits her. For clients from the rest of the world, it can be a rather mixed bag of requests. “For western clients in Southeast Asia, I always have a day during a charter where I will prepare dishes from the region we are in. This way, they are able to sample the local cuisine. Often, I just put a little less chili in.”
Chef Bentley says that some of his new favorite ingredients are mantis shrimp (“beautiful texture and sweet flesh”), chou dofu (stinky tofu) and sea cucumber. Dried ingredients were another big discovery: “I find the use of dried ingredients in Chinese cuisine fascinating – my personal favorite is to make an Oil from Dried shrimp which I then use to cook all my seafood – delicious!”
For chefs of all stripes aboard superyachts, sourcing is the big challenge and often a fun part of the job. While superyachts stationed in the Mediterranean have a host of ready-to-go food suppliers (often found in the pages of a superyacht supplier phone book), in Southeast Asia, chefs participate in the ebb and flow of daily life at the village level.
Uk-born Sheltron says she always goes to local markets, whenever she is onboard a yacht in the region. Depending on the location of the superyacht, the market could be on a tiny Indonesian island that has just a few hundred inhabitants, “who gather their produce once a week,” or the large wet markets of Singapore. “One of the best experiences I had was in Sorong, West Papua New Guinea, before travelling to Raja Ampat for a charter. I provisioned at the local market and I will always remember the look of joy on peoples’ faces as I questioned them on what all these exotic looking fish and vegetables were and how to cook them, mainly using sign language.”
For Eldon, each market has its own surprises, but Patong Market in Phuket is recommended for fresh seafood. The atmospherics of the main market in Yangon, Myanmar is also a favorite. “I feel like I’m in a movie set, and it’s the people I meet at the markets that I particularly love. You meet some real characters.”
Fresh seafood is a staple of the best in Southeast Asian food, and so finding the best sources of fish becomes a big part of a superyacht chef in the region. Chef Eldon reckons the best place to buy your fish (provided you’re not fishing yourself) is straight off a fishing boat in the Andaman Sea.
For Sheltron, the best place for fish was an “incredible” fish market in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. “I got up at 4am and went with the captain to explore. I thought I had arrived there early, but most people had
“I IMMERSE MYSELF IN THE LOCAL CUISINE WHEN I ARRIVE IN A COUNTRY AND LOOK FOR TRADITIONAL RECIPES FOR THAT AREA”
– Emma Sheltron
been there all night long,” she recalls. The boats were arriving and unloading at the market. “When fish is that fresh, there is no smell, the eyes are shiny and the flesh is firm. That’s when you know you are at a good fish market.”
Superyacht chefs are the key to a successful charter experience, yet they can also be the most difficult place on the superyacht to fill, says Liz To, Asia-pacific representative for YPI Group, a superyacht charter agency. It’s a very personal thing – chefs are required to do top-level hands-on work, where their land-based equivalents will be running kitchens staffed with a team. Yet, if chefs enjoy the hands on side of things, the allure of personalized service in an exotic location is enough to overcome being away from friends or family.
Onboard Event, Chef Bentley has access to a walk-in fridge and walk-in freezer, large dry storage space and a big galley. “Coming from a restaurant background, where I am used to running large teams in big establishments, this is a nice change as it means I get to concentrate a lot more on the cooking than I do the running of a kitchen,” he says. For Bentley, being a superyacht chef means being able to push boundaries, rather than having to push dishes out the door. “My favorite part of being a superyacht chef is the flexibility and the produce. There are no budget constraints and there is no compromise in quality. Using the best quality produce in all aspects of my dishes makes my work more of a hobby than a job.”
It may also be that owners will come to trust a chef so much that they will do anything to keep a chef. Closer to home in Hong Kong, chef Kai Lui Wing, has been working on superyachts for years, for the owner of a 40-metre Sunseeker and Feadship Moon Sand. Recruited from legendary Hong Kong restaurant Jimmy’s Kitchen, Kai spent years building up trust with the yacht owner. In the first two years, Kai was only stationed on the superyacht, but later found himself being called on to do the catering at private house parties.
Kai reckons that Hong Kong chefs are better suited to working in a galley aboard a yacht, as their work in restaurants is often in equally tight (if not tighter) conditions.
When Kai goes sourcing in Hong Kong, his yachts stay in Hong Kong waters, his preferred spots are Sai Kung wet market ( best seafood) or for more unusual ingredients, the Ap Lei Chau wet market, next to the Tin Hau Temple. On the ground floor, you can buy the fish, and then go up to the first floor restaurant where everything is prepared. It is, he says, a secret favorite among the “yachtie” crowd in Hong Kong.
So the next time you’re out on a superyacht charter in Southeast Asia, be sure to see what your chef has found at the local market, and pair it with a nice wine. It might be spicy.
01 Superyacht Bliss at anchor in Tahiti
02 The Galley aboard Bliss.