Updated: Jan 2, 2020
You hire a pro like Bernard Pearce as Ship's Cook, and keep the hordes of hungry sailors healthy and happy.
Richard Lauridsen sat down with Bernard, to capture some of his best practices in "10 Things To Know About Being a Sea Cook" below. Enjoy!
Every crew member has an essential role aboard a vessel. Just as a ship’s engineer keeps the boat safe and running, the ship’s cook keeps the crew safe and running. Bernard Pearce, the ship’s cook aboard the tall ship Lady Washington, opened my eyes to his important role during our interview. Bernard has an impressive amount of experience in the galley aboard various vessels as well as professional experience on land. The focus of my interview was to find out what it takes to work as a cook on a vessel that caters its meals to the crew and not necessarily to paying guests of a commercial passenger vessel. Although he offered up many tips on this subject, he also gave me professional insight that is valuable even if you are not interested in working in the galley. In a nutshell, shipboard cooking is not simply feeding others, but also caring for the crew’s health.
1) What educational requirements and certifications are needed to be a ship’s cook?
Although no certifications are needed for work on small vessels, it is important to obtain a Food Handlers Permit from the state where your ships will be operating. This will reduce liability and educate you on maintaining a clean and safe galley. It is best to follow established food handling regulations rather than to try to invent your own. As far as academic requirements, strong accounting skills and organization are necessary in order to plan and manage the galley budget. Having basic maths skills for accounting is important yet also for ratios in proportioning of recipes. Rarely does a recipe serve the exact number of people you want to feed.
2) Does one need professional experience in the restaurant business?
Being a ship’s cook is not as simple as cooking at home. Bernard says it is not an entry level position and in order to succeed, some professional cooking experience is recommended. Knowledge of safe food handling procedures will help keep the crew from spreading any illness.
3) Does a ship’s cook create inventive recipes to keep a ship’s crew well fed?
In the restaurant business, a cook must be creative and inventive with recipes. This is not the same when cooking for a ship’s crew. A ship’s cook does not work towards impressing crew with innovative recipes. Instead, the cook must focus on the dietary needs and likes/dislikes of the crew. It is important to find out what these are and to plan your meals to include all of them. This is where a ship’s cook must leave their ego behind and give the crew what they like. For example, if someone requests a good old fashioned mac and cheese meal, it is not the time to make them your famous gourmet recipe. Give them the comfort food they are asking for and don’t “fix it up.”
4) How does a cook serve specific dietary needs such as allergies or vegetarian/vegan needs?
Allergies or dietary needs are a matter of life and death for some. This needs to be taken seriously by the ship’s cook; being knowledgeable about cross contamination is important. This is where the cook can show their creativity with special dietary needs to not leave someone out or wind up cooking a different dish for each person. If there is someone who is vegan, or cannot eat fish, cook recipes for them, but use spices, condiments, and add ons for the rest of the crew. This is where professional experience as a cook will definitely come in handy.
5) What does provisioning while in port entail?
Provisioning depends on the port and type of sailing your vessel does. Bernard has had to ride a bike up to seven miles in order to find the goods he needs. Sometimes you will find a grocery store within walking distance from the docks. Either way, this is where careful accounting and planning is important. The cook must keep in mind the cold and dry storage space available onboard before setting out for provisions. They must also manage the budget. You do not want more food than you have storage; worse, you do not want to run out of food. Which brings us to long passages: Bernard recommends planning for long passages with the Captain due to the complexities of being at sea.
6) Besides being the Ship’s Cook, are there other responsibilities?
A cook’s responsibilities outside of the galley can differ between the vessels you are working on. Some will require the cook to work as a deckhand, some will not. With that said, Bernard recommends always getting out of the galley to learn and work with the rest of the crew. This helps build camaraderie with your crewmates as well as helps with the cook’s own mental and physical state. Instead of hitting the bunk when the galley is closed, get out on deck and socialize. Bernard also uses this time with his crewmates to observe their health. For example, if they are looking dehydrated he will try and help by making up some punch to encourage hydration.
7) What is the greatest difficulty when cooking for a large group of people? The greatest difficulty is not letting ego get in the way. When working as a ship's cook, the main objective is to be the health and morale officer. Keep in mind that just as the engineer keeps the boat safe and functioning, a ship’s cook keeps the crew safe and working. The crew should not bend to the cook’s needs, the cook should bend towards the crew’s needs. There are many discomforts aboard a working ship and food is one thing crew look forward to.
8) Is there a backup cook in case the ship’s cook needs a day off or comes down with an illness?
There is usually no backup cook available if you need a day off. This is one of the heaviest responsibilities for a ship’s cook. In the worst case scenarios the ship’s captain or first mate may step in to help, but it is not something to count on. Depending on the ship, when you are in port, the cook may be given a day off and will leave leftovers or sandwiches available for the crew. Keep in mind that a large responsibility of the cook is to keep the crew safe and it is important to take yourself out of the galley if you feel you may be down with a contagious illness.
9) Is the ship’s cook an underappreciated job onboard a vessel?
If you cater to the crew’s needs, socialize, and work as a deckhand alongside them, the crew will learn to value your role aboard with great admiration. Make the crew’s health and morale a priority in your work. Failing to do so will likely result in not being appreciated. Once again, food is medicine and the crew is looking forward to it after all the hard work and discomforts of working on a vessel.
10) What is Bernard’s greatest tip for being a successful ships’ cook?
Don’t do it unless you love it. You must really care about not only focusing on food, but also safe food handling and galley procedures. The galley is not a home kitchen and the right precautions such as wearing gloves, or masks when needed, are required. Another example: the cook may not want to wash the dishes after a meal but having many crew members with different hygiene habits wash their own dishes can contaminate the dishwater and spread boat illness like wildfire. Dishwashing is not a glamorous task, but taking pride in keeping your crew healthy and safe is a mark of a great ship’s cook. In return, your crew will admire your hard work and care you give them.
(Last thought: If you are interested in being a ship’s cook, don’t be afraid to ask to be a cook’s assistant!)
The Seafarer Collective