We received them in Portofino, their eyes glittering as their Louis Vuitton luggage piled onto the decks of the 165-foot sailing yacht. After years of working in Italy, the six guests stood in what I’d come to regard as Italian-ness, which came with olive skin tones, gold jewelry, and upright bearing. The ladies wore silk scarves and, as though it were a uniform, possessed the thick, magenta-tinted hair that surrounded their faces, painted with makeup that might seem clownish anywhere else but in Italy was fashionable. The men donned white button-down shirts, which flowed into linen slacks, gold chains shining against their thin, bronzed chests.  

As was customary, the eight crew stood in a receiving line at the yacht’s stern: captain, mate, deckhands, chief stewardess, etc. When the introductions reached me — the chef — the lion-haired Madame, the principal guest (the person paying the bill), interrupted the captain, her voice shrill. “But excuse me, did you call her the cook?” Her tone was strident, stinging. Scott, our captain, tilted his head sideways and blinked. Then, a little shriller, with a touch of panic, Madame said, “Our cook is an American female?”Madame crossed her arms over her bosom and said, “Well,” but her pursed lips may as well have said “shit” or “fuck.” 

What Madame said elicited no audible gasp. The yacht’s management had coached us on how to still ourselves, and no matter the customer demands, we avoided saying “no.” When customers used offensive words, we smiled. When criticized, we told our guests, “I appreciate your feedback.”

All that summer, we welcomed a diverse group of clients whose behaviors had groomed us to expect the unexpected and even to anticipate it. Sometimes I wondered if the unpredictability of guests’ temperaments had attracted us to the work in the first place. We wanted the money, sure, but we also liked the game of earning those tips. We liked the idea that a big payload could come from our efforts as customer service professionals anticipating guests’ needs before they themselves understood them. 

While some guests appreciated a quiet, more understated customer service mentality, others required a more intuitive approach — which compelled us to analyze not only what the guests asked for but also how they’d asked for it. Yes, the guests had asked for a non-fat diet, I explained to one of our stewardesses, but this did not mean the clients wanted fat-free desserts. On the contrary, I had learned that if I did not have a couple of decadent desserts, the self-professed dieters grew irritated and sometimes angry at us for providing what they’d asked for but not what they actually wanted. 

And though I would not have been able to say this then, mastering the art of double-speak and cooking elaborate dinners for extravagantly wealthy people made me feel important and valuable in ways that otherwise eluded me. 


I’d begun cooking on yachts in my early twenties, treating the job as a way to travel and save money. Since we lived on the yachts full-time, we enjoyed free rent and board. But as the yachts grew and the budgets expanded, I saw the potential to earn big money. So, about four years into my tenure, I took a six-month sabbatical to attend a French-themed culinary school. I returned to yachts appreciating the industry even more because, unlike a restaurant, where a cook is assigned to the pastry kitchen or the meat station, I designed and executed the entire menu myself. Everything, from the breakfast to the veal stocks, to the hand-rolled pasta, and the post-dinner truffles.

Charter yachts were the way to earn the big bucks. If the yacht was rented for 40,000 dollars a day, and the guests stayed for ten days, the bill came to four hundred thousand. If the principal charterer left an eighteen-percent tip, and we divided that tip nine ways, then eight thousand dollars dropped into my offshore bank account. 

Except for a few sailors who’d grown up sailing in Nantucket, most crews had backgrounds similar to mine, with financially struggling parents. Yachting was our way to generate wealth. If the hours were long and the sacrifices to our mental or physical health significant, we found ways to endure our discontent. To blow off steam, we drank the leftover champagne, making rowdy toasts to one another. Some crew bought themselves rewards, like a five-thousand-dollar watch or a luxurious hotel room for a weekend, which motivated them to keep going. 

Cooking isn’t just a job but a calling, and since cooking did not come exclusively from knife skills and cookery knowledge but a desire to please guests, and since these guests often had difficult personalities, I had to work at this a bit. Sometimes, when clients were unlikeable, I imagined them as neglected children. 

It was not an imaginative leap to think these people had shitty childhoods. Some families arrived with such crackling tension between them that why they’d ever vacation together was unfathomable. Once, a particularly miserable gentleman came into the galley and explained how this vacation had been “forced” on him. That force was a $250,000 payout deposited from the family trust into his account upon arriving on the yacht. So, essentially, he’d been bribed to vacation with the siblings he loathed. After seven days of watching this guy surrender to acid reflux and migraine headaches, I wanted to tell him to leave, that the money wasn’t worth the toll on his health, but of course, no one was gifting me $250,000. 

One guest, a mother of three, confessed that she hadn’t initially wanted children; the impetus to have them was to ensure that her sister’s kids didn’t inherit the family’s fortune. 

In other words, I had a first-row seat to a demonstration of how people’s relationship with money psychologically destabilized them. Or how the advantages of wealth contributed to an inevitable shrinkage of their emotional intelligence which caused them unhappiness. My job as yacht chef was to create happiness with whatever means was at my disposal. 

Our guests — Los Angeles talent agents who ate nothing but fruits and chocolate cakes, the music executives who requested ten never-before-seen appetizers daily, the Midwesterners who wanted a dessert buffet every afternoon, which had me baking cakes and tarts into the wee hours nightly — all of my clients inspired my creative efforts. No matter the demands, I prepared their food with tender affection. I planned menus, backup menus, and emergency desserts in case they didn’t like the desserts they’d requested. 


On that 165-foot yacht, as Madame vibrated with outrage, Scott nodded, apologizing. I looked at Portofino, where tourists meandered around the square against the colorful facades of buildings that leaned slightly inward, so pretty that if it weren’t for the seagulls swooping over the overflowing trash bins, the town would have looked like a movie set. 

Conditions were often tense when the guests arrived — the crew damped up in anticipation, and the guests riled up for their particular reasons. I could not know the source of Madame’s antagonism towards me. Perhaps an American woman once ruined her food. Maybe she employed a handsome male chef in her villa and had looked forward to the flirty repartee. Had seeing me crushed her libido?  

No matter the reason, Madame’s arrival triggered a roaring in my head like a hundred oven fans thrumming. It was late August, the end of our charter season, and I’d been dealing for months with cranky crew members, the yacht’s pedantic management, and chronic exhaustion. With guests streaming through, we endured an endless blur of short nights and long days, during which I toiled in the galley, bent like an old witch over my stove. 

Madame remained resolute. An American woman could not cook her food, the words in her mouth thick as pieces of steak. Madame threatened to leave — surrendering the hundred-thousand-dollar rental deposit — unless we found her a male Italian cook right then. 

Captain Scott bowed his head as he sidled alongside me, shifted his weight between his large feet, and whispered, “What are we going do?” 

“We. Really?” I asked.  

And he grimaced. Italian chefs were rare to come by on yachts, and even the best placement agency could not locate one on short notice. 

An idea bloomed in my mind. “Tell them the Italian guy is meeting us in Sardinia?” 

Scott’s eyes clouded. He started to speak, then bit his lip and looked at me. “Lie?” he whispered.   

“Do you want to tell our boss we couldn’t do it?” Scott knew as reasonably as I did that our boss — a self-made British billionaire who rented out the yacht to pay the expenses — would expect us to do everything possible to appease Madame. 

 “You can do it?” Scott asked. I didn’t know. I’d attended a French culinary school, but I had an Italian boyfriend who’d taught me that Italian food traditions were idiosyncratic to regional rules. For example, Tuscan cooks did not pair parmesan cheese with porcini mushrooms.

I spoke Italian fluently enough that I had conversed with local fishermen, bakers, cheesemakers, and pasta makers, trying to learn the Italian “dos” and “don’t.”  I had read about fine dining restaurants in Rome where they served thinly sliced prosciutto on a gold-rimmed plate and nothing else, the sheathes of smoked pork requiring no embellishment. According to the Italians, the best ingredients didn’t need parsley sprigs. I had half a chance of making a credible performance as an Italian chef if I kept the food simple.

Scott’s brown eyes looked as lost as I felt, but I shrugged, telling him that I would do my best and that I had better go below and start the show. 

 As I made to leave, Scott seized my wrist. 

 “If we mess this up,” he said. But the way his lips stretched tightly didn’t mean “we” — he told me if I messed this up. A warning that if I did not succeed, he would shift the blame to me. Which made him on par with every captain I had ever worked with. I nodded, perhaps less disappointed in him than in myself. Was it too much to expect my boss might support — much less defend — my attempt to save the situation? Yes, of course: I was in the marine industry. 


The following days were a blur. I cooked with adrenalin, urgency, and racing thoughts. But, even if I knew that it was just cooking, that I was only handling mozzarella cheese, the fight to create and execute a menu that would win over Madame turned me into the protagonist of my own myth: Madame was now the Cyclops, and I was Ulysses, cooking for my continued existence. 

That first lunch, I served the sloppiest mozzarella with baby tomatoes from Naples, steamed squid with fennel and orange zest and black olives, pasta with olive oil and garlic I cooked al dente, followed by pine-nut tart with almond biscotti, a menu from Rosa, an Italian chef in Viareggio, a town down the coast, who screamed over the phone, “Semplice!” Simple. I kept two pots of heavily salted water on the stove (as Rosa counseled) in case I cooked the pasta beyond the al dente (to the tooth) point and needed to cook a new batch, a common mistake of American chefs. 

The guests devoured the food without commentary. As I wiped the counters and the sweat from my brow, I scribbled out the dinner menu: scampi with lemon and garlic, baked Italian sea bass with tomatoes and potatoes, green salad with olive oil and lemon dressing, followed by flourless chocolate hazelnut torte with vanilla gelato, and chocolate truffles with crushed espresso beans. I had two other kinds of fish in case they rejected the sea bass. And I roasted chickens with rosemary and had the preparations for a seafood risotto in case they rejected all of the fish. 

As I plated the sea bass, Scott stood in the galley, a hand on the back of his neck as he looked on, his mouth agape.  

“It’s working?” he said, and I squinted at him, and he raised his hands and backed away. “All right, I won’t jinx it,” he said, and I thanked Zeus and other imaginary cooking Gods when Scott left.  

The following morning, I arose early to bake sugar-encrusted turnovers filled with rice pudding, croissants, and lemon pound cake as a backup, a suggestion by another chef friend who’d counseled me to hold food back, so I had offerings if they rejected anything. 

Lunch, day two, was pasta with sautéed zucchini, blood-orange and fennel salad and half a dozen other small dishes. For dinner: a multi-course seafood menu created by the local fish purveyor, whose wife told me how to cook: lightly steaming the catch with bay leaves, fennel fronds, and slices of lemon. 

Through the third day, the scallops, shrimp, and crawfish sparked rashes to crawl up my arms, but the guests sang bravo to the stewardesses: they loved the cooking. 

In the late evening, I fell into my bunk after I kneaded the focaccia dough to elasticity. I dreamt of being in a kitchen with larger-than-life appliances and a bathtub-sized mixing bowl I eventually fell into. I awoke sweaty at 5 AM, gulped espressos, and called Kenny, a chef pal, whose yacht I spied through my porthole. “Someday, this will all be over,” Kenny assured me. “You will not be on a yacht in Italy. You will miss the insanity. The triumph. You will miss her, your Italian bitch.” After he hung up, I listened to the dial tone for a few seconds before I realized Kenny was not wrong. My attempt to prove myself capable as any Italian cook invigorated me and inspired a grandiose sense of satisfaction. 


Late afternoon, day four, Madame tiptoed, unnoticed by the three stewardesses, down the stairs to my doorway, her body stiffening as her eyes widened. “You,” she said, nostrils flaring. Her gaze flitted across my counters, the bread dough in a bowl, the shiny, floppy squids, the lacy fennel-tops to a cutting board where three sea bass lay, their bodies slick and shiny as mirrors. 

Her red lacquered nails glowed against the gripped doorway, her hardened features softening. Madame walked behind my counter and pulled me to her chest, her dense, dark hair tickling my nostrils. 

She pulled away, her eyes flashing with intensity. This sensation of being looked at, seen, and recognized sparked my body’s circuitry. “But how did you do it?” she whispered. 

Her question might have pertained to my deception, Italian cooking, or ability to remain hidden. And the answer? Because, as Kenny had said, I loved my job. 

I loved watching onions fall into finely diced squares against the blade of my ten-inch cook’s knife. I loved having twenty-gallon stockpots simmering with salted water. I loved how roasting bones filled the yacht with the smell of roasted beef and how my hands created four dozen recipes daily as the weight of my whole self seemingly dissolved in the efforts to meet the guest’s demands. But I was a thirty-one-year-old woman who worked one hundred-hour weeks. My most intimate acquaintance was with French butter and veal bones. 

Before Madame’s arrival, I had been worn thin. But now, as I basked in her adoration, and perfume, I understood that I was at the coda of my cooking career. The thousands of dollars I’d spent on groceries over the years had neutralized the memories of scarcity from my childhood. The bank of empathy I’d once had for my demanding guests was empty. I thought I might stab myself if I had to endure one more client tantrum for running out of truffles, caviar, or organic peaches. Or I’d dislike them so heartily I’d inadvertently spoil their food. Soon, I would hang my apron up for good and maybe even go outside while the sun was still out and walk around. 


Madame left with the same flourish with which she had arrived, and, in contrast to the Italian custom, she left us a generous tip. 

A few weeks afterward, I retired from the industry and moved back to the Pacific Northwest, ninety miles from where I’d grown up. 

I can barely believe I cooked for those Italians when I think of those days now. At the time, I think I knew I had reached a pinnacle with cooking. I had cooked with attention, restraint, and expertise that I could not sustain and have probably not exercised since. 

I don’t cook professionally anymore. To my chagrin, I don’t cook much at all. Inevitably, when I hold a knife, I think I am below the decks of a yacht cooking for Madame, or someone like her, who awaits dishes of unobtainable perfection, and my throat constricts. 

Even now, 20 years later, I think of Madame. When Madame rejected me, I thought I had no choice but to win her over; otherwise, I risked those crushing feelings of failure that haunt every chef — when you are only as good as your last plate of food. Instead, I taught Madame that an American woman could exceed her high standards. Madame taught me that I was worthy of her respect. Our customer service tango improved the both of us. 




Image: Pixabay, licensed under CC 2.0.

Mishele Maron
Latest posts by Mishele Maron (see all)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.