Chef on superyachts
Martino Motti interview with Stefania Tagliava
Which part of the world do you come from chef?
I come from an island, from Sicily, I was born in Palermo.
How did you get acquainted with the sea?
The first memories I have as a child are of the sea. I grew up with my feet in the water, I can remember spending long summer afternoons on my haunches trying to catch crabs or simply watching fish with an underwater mask on my face. To me, a Sicilian woman, the horizon is made up of a sea line.
After graduating from high school I began to study political science at university. I completed the course and prepared my graduation thesis but I did not see it through so it was as if I had dropped out at the last moment to take advantage of an unexpected and rare opportunity which meant travelling around the world getting experience in learning how to cook which to me was a great passion. So I postponed graduating from university for a year. Today I am very happy of the choice I had made at that time.
Which are your earliest memories related to cooking?
Well initially they’re family connected, they’re linked to my grandmother who was in the habit of preparing slices of bread with a sprinkling of olive oil and a pinch of sugar as an afternoon snack, and of my mother who could harness together speed and efficiency with enviable results. But also several recollections of the families I grew up with. For example also a few memories with my friend Anna whose family passed on ancient recipes for three generations. Those days paved the way to my first hands on and personal experiments made up of pastry and cakes made in the family kitchen which led to cooking and inviting my friends to dinner parties. I’ve always found this aspect both amusing and stimulating as to how each one of us adapts one’s dishes according to mood and lifestyle.
Your first experiences at sea?
I have a vivid recollection of my initial camping experience on a small wooden boat with a tent pulled over the top of the boom and ship’s stores packed into a bag containing pasta garlic and oil and cooking over a small camping gas fuelled cob on gimbals in friends’ boats with whom I’d spend Sundays. My friend and BR1 yacht management team commander in Malta Diego Ruggiero recommended me for a job as chef on board for the same company he’d been working with for years- Even if I always liked the idea, I felt the right moment hadn’t arrived yet to start working at sea . This went on until last year when I was looking for a little evasion and a pause and because I am curious I was the one who asked him if the opportunity was still valid. And so I began to work for the yacht management team and I was taken on a90’ Benetti sailing yacht called My Lotty for the season in Mediterranean waters offering guests my exclusive recipes.
Preceding experiences as chef?
My preceding experiences in the kitchen are from restaurants and catering services I was involved with not only as chef but as organiser as well.
Which are the main features of the kitchen you’re currently working in today?
There’s a porthole overlooking the sea, no in fact they’re two and they never fail to give me amazing views of the surroundings. I think that chopping up zucchini with Stromboli erupting as backdrop is real luxury. The same goes for deep red sunsets or simply the noise of water splashing up against the sides. Everything gets a little extreme at sea sometimes especially on sailing yachts. It is like getting to the essence of things leaving little room for superfluous ones which can be of a practical nature or a mental one or even both. Nevertheless reality is that which is on and inside the boat. The crew becomes your society and family and time is perceived as being the spaces that separate sun rise from sun set while nature is pervasive and manages to capture and involve you one way or another. And all of this inevitably conditions what and how you cook the dishes you had in mind.
Right now I’m experimenting several ways of smoking food and where possible cooking slow at low temperatures. Foodstuffs I thought I knew their tastes well are capable of releasing pleasant unprecedented tastes by just varying some cooking processes. As I have no perfect recipe as such, but they supposedly are all those that allow me to amuse myself or learning while the dishes are taking their final shape.
What is it that you prefer cooking and with which basic ingredients?
Surely fish: I like to scout around for fresh high quality fish I find ashore which is typical of the Mediterranean and so far as variety is concerned ‘mare nostrum’ has never let us down. I like to look into fishes’ anatomy which I take back on board with me. Maybe I’ll take a few pics of my findings before gutting them and prepare them for cooking. Furthermore I like to choose the delicacy of the flesh ashore. In my opinion fish requires being cooked for a handful of minutes alone depending on weight, texture of the meat and heat from the oven. A correct uniform blend will give back all of the marine flavour and taste. A saying from the place I come from claims that”….fish possesses 24 tastes and with every passing hour from its catch time you lose one…!” Furthermore Palermo is a multi ethnic town and I happen to live next to one of the most folkloristic and lively markets where next to stalls and typical shops you’ll find African and Asian people selling their vegetables and spices I allow spices and vegetables to tempt me. I also allow myself and why not, to take a deep breath while trying to get inspired and inspire by getting to integrate them into recipes with loads of traditional tastes.. I also use a great deal of vegetables. Seasonal fruit is also very popular and I love to use it more traditionally since I also like to mix and blend it with salty dishes.
Do you prefer the cuisine dedicated to the owner or the one dedicated to charter parties?
My owner is really an exquisite person but his tastes entail several limitations. To me the challenge is to astonish him every time without having to do without a variety of tastes in the real sense. Instead during Charters you might find any sort of paying guest from the one who authorizes you to perform as you please since he is curious and enthusiastic about letting himself be astonished and be guided through a gourmet course which follows up on a diet laden with restrictions or to the person who normally eats the same things and has little curiosity for food. All of this makes my work more dynamic and varied while giving me the opportunity of making several diverse requests without renouncing to use a personal and original touch.
Your worse experience as chef?
I believe resilience is a necessary quality in any kitchen. The beautiful side of food is that it can be transformed accordingly and that a recipe can become something else as you go along. Naturally you can’t always substitute or transform recipes when something goes wrong as once happened to me. I’d prepared a pumpkin soup for 20 and given prohibitive temperatures during a hot summer’s day in August, it went off in record time no sooner had I taken it out of the fridge. Didn’t even get time enough to have it served…
Differences between preparing dishes on board and in a land placed restaurant?
When cruising you buy what you can find ashore and more so when visiting small islands. Should you have an idea of what you wish to prepare in the next few days it is worth considering you may have to modify it and re adapt it accordingly with what you find while shopping ashore. Moreover on board there is no fixed menu to offer, which allows you to vary more and makes the chef’s role more stimulating than cooking on land. But perhaps the main difference is that as far as crew is concerned it virtually becomes a team, but you work alone on a yacht and there is no team to collaborate with. Everything is up to you from the moment you’ve imagined a dish to the container you want to have it served in at table.
That is probably why I have been showing future chefs on board how to move around luxury yachts’ galleys for the past three years, during which I have also been training crews of the yachts we manage during “BR1 Crew Training” courses.