At Waban Kitchen in Newton, Massachusetts, sous chef Nate Gibson cooks high-end American cuisine for hundreds of guests every week. Using fresh local ingredients, he maneuvers between three ovens, 18 range burners and a three-foot-long grill to produce dishes like hoisin-glazed salmon and mussels with homemade chorizo. What happens when this same big-city chef gets tucked into an itty-bitty galley and is challenged to cook like a sailor? We shanghaied Chef Gibson and set out onto Boston Harbor to find out.
Before Chef Gibson arrived, the crew stocked a Hanse 375 at the Boston Sailing Center with typical end-of-a-cruise provisions: a can of corn, some tuna, a few sketchy onions, scraps of raw bacon, a handful of trail mix and other such non-appetizing items. In the galley, we stowed two mixing bowls, one baking dish, a non-stick frying pan and a basic set of knives and utensils. Then we invited Chef Gibson on board.
He walked down the companionway, surveyed his ingredients, eyed the galley, and let out a stifled laugh as if to politely say, “You people cook with this?”
In my best Top Chef impression, I presented him with his challenge: “Here’s the situation: you’ve been on a boat for seven days, and you’re down to your last provisions. Your crew is hungry and your time is limited. Use as many of these ingredients as possible to prepare a four-course meal. Your time begins now.”
Chef Gibson whipped out a knife and slammed down a cutting board. Someone cued up the tunes, and we were off.
The Provisions on Board:
3 cans tuna
2 cans ginger beer
a dozen eggs
4 hamburger buns
salt and pepper
1st Course: Avocado Underway
Chef Gibson knew his crew was hungry, so his first course was quick, easy and filling: a corn-avocado salad served with tortilla chips. By combining diced avocado and onion, canned corn and canned black beans with fresh-squeezed lime, hot sauce and seasoning, he created a thick and chunky dip that tasted fresh and healthy, not to mention filling. Because it was flavorful without being overly savory or distractingly spicy, the salad was quite versatile. It could have been served with chips, on a sandwich or even eaten by itself.
- Label the tops of canned goods with a black Sharpie. When the labels peel off after sitting in a damp bilge for weeks, you’ll still know what you’re cooking with.
- Provision with ingredients that are filling and have a long shelf life. Canned goods and mixed nuts are good staples and squash, cabbage and potatoes all keep well.
- If you only have room to carry three condiments, make them salt, pepper and hot sauce. Together they do wonders for any meal.
2nd Course: Lost at Sea Tuna Noodle Casserole
Our second course looked like a more appetizing version of a classic last-night-at-sea dish I often make, in which I combine a smorgasbord of leftovers and call it a meal. It may not be elegant, but it’s efficient. Chef Gibson’s Lost at Sea Tuna Noodle Casserole featured bowtie pasta served beneath a sauce of apples and onions sautéed in rendered bacon, canned tuna and fresh-squeezed lemon, topped with a trail mix gremolata. I would never think to combine these ingredients at home, but they worked well together. The lemon added zest, the sautéed apples and onions heightened the texture, the tuna provided protein, and the occasional M&M made for a pleasant surprise.
- Sauté crisp fruits and vegetables, such as apples or onions, in salt and pepper to add sweetness and a crunchy texture to an otherwise boring dish.
- Things that may turn stomachs on shore often taste delicious at sea. Take advantage of your crew’s appetites, and don’t take yourself too seriously. For instance, a trail mix garnish is great for crew morale.
- Make dishes that can be served in bowls, so you can put your meal down, trim a sail, and come back to it. Better yet, get a set of rubber-bottom dog bowls, which are less likely to slide around when the boat heels.
3rd Course: San Francisco Bay Sandwich
We were just beginning to feel full when Chef Gibson presented his main course: the San Francisco Bay Sandwich, an open-faced egg sandwich served with turkey bacon and corn-avocado salad on a toasted hamburger bun. The buns were a bit stale, so Gibson browned them in a combination of bacon fat and butter before assembling the other ingredients. The sandwich itself was a tribute to the Diner Burger at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, which Gibson had discovered during a recent sailing trip to the City by the Bay. Just like the Diner Burger—a half-pound of black Angus beef served with a runny organic egg—Gibson’s sandwich contained simple ingredients that were deliciously combined. Better yet, this dish can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- Use leftovers in creative ways to make the most of your food. When Chef Gibson reintroduced the corn-avocado salad into this dish, it tasted fresh and entirely different. “Cross-utilization,” as Gibson calls it, will maximize provisions and minimize clean-up time.
- Speaking of clean-up time, try to create meals that can be cooked in as few pots and pans as possible. While making sandwiches, Chef Gibson cooked the bacon and eggs and toasted the buns all in the same pan and simply wiped it down in between. Limiting dish and utensil use is good for your water supply and gets you out of the galley more quickly.
4th Course: Dark n’ Stormies Foster
“Hand me the rum, the peanut butter, the hot sauce and apples.” Our chef was nearing the end of his provisions; it was time to get truly creative. The crew went on deck to stretch their legs and in no time, Chef Gibson appeared with chili-glazed apples drizzled in a peanut butter rum sauce. The thinly sliced fruit was perfectly crunchy and when you bit into it, hints of ginger beer mixed with the chili glaze to create an enticingly sweet and spicy flavor. A delicate drizzle of silky peanut butter rum sauce on the apples invoked memories of childhood caramel apples; a handful of crumbled tortilla chips on top added a bit of playfulness.
- Don’t be afraid to try something different. I never would have put these ingredients into the same dessert, but when you’re cooking on a boat with a captive audience and limited supplies, there’s no reason not to experiment.
- Cooking with alcohol is almost never a bad idea.
- Truly frigid spaces are rare on boats, but if you’re lucky enough to have a freezer, ice cream will improve any dessert.
After everything was put away, the crew gathered in the cockpit to discuss the woes of cooking onboard. Many sailors are also self-proclaimed “foodies” who feel constrained in the confines of a galley. Limited ingredients, counter space, refrigeration and equipment can make the whole experience downright frustrating.
Still, Chef Gibson managed to produce something interesting from the most mundane ingredients. Even after the fact, he couldn’t stop thinking of other ways he might have used our provisions: French toast with the eggs, milk and hamburger buns; homemade mayonnaise from egg yolks and olive oil; tuna melts; ice cream. Listening to him brainstorm, it was clear that cooking on board didn’t have to be limiting; it was just different.
Given our limited provisions, I likely would have proclaimed we were “out of food,” but Chef Gibson reminded us “you don’t need fancy ingredients to make fancy dishes.” With a few basic tricks, a brave cook and an open-minded crew, your galley meals can taste just as good as homemade.
10 Great Ingredients:
1.Bisquick: for pancakes, breads, muffins and beer-battering fish
2. No-bake Jello: to make pies for special celebrations
3. Chick peas: can be eaten whole or made into hummus
4. Quinoa: yummier, healthier and faster-cooking than rice
5. Powdered soups: can double as gravies and sauces
6. Instant oatmeal: pour hot water directly into the bag to save a dish
7. Gatorade powder: masks the taste of water tanks
8. Avocados: eat them whole, as a spread or as guacamole
9. Eggs: a great source of protein, they keep well and can be used in sandwiches, fried rice, baked goods or for basting
10. Cabbage: Like lettuce that keeps forever
SAIL reviewed four excellent galley cookbooks. See the results here.