Friday, February 6, 2015

Chef at Sea: How to Keep 23 Hungry Scuba Divers Satisfied

Jayne Preparing Lunch
In my last post, I mentioned we started our Mexican vacation in Cabo San Lucas. The whole point of going there was to board the Nautilus Explorer, a diving liveaboard vessel for a 9-day trip to dive the Socorro Islands where giant Pacific manta rays rule this time of year.

Shortly after boarding, we gathered in the salon where the captain and entire crew introduced themselves to the guests. As soon as Chef Jayne identified herself, I knew I would be stalking her in between dives for the rest of the trip. 

In my 20+ years as a diver, I've been fortunate enough to travel on several liveaboard dive boats in remote corners of the world. For you nondivers out there,  liveaboard dive vacations are taken on a boat with usually 16-25 other divers to a remote place where guests dive repeatedly all day long (and sometimes at night). Most times there is an extremely long ocean crossing 16-26 hours to get to unpopulated areas to dive. Nonscuba folks would find very little to do unless they just want to chill, read, eat and snorkel. 

Depending upon the boat, the accommodations range from basic to kinda cushy. The food usually follows the same scale. The Nautilus Explorer falls on the "kinda cushy" side of the scale.

We had 23 divers and nine crew members aboard. Chef Jayne was responsible for feeding us all. And peeps, diving makes you hungry. This apparently has to do with nitrogen laced air you breathe from your tank and also involves your body trying to keep warm during diving. Whatever. I just know many of us are starving after a dive. 

Divers gearing up for the first dive of the day & a sunrise shot
On most days our first dive was at 7 AM. So we had two breakfasts. Jayne would first set out a continental consisting of hot oatmeal, cold cereal, homemade bread, often more than one variety, to slather with butter, peanut butter and/or jelly, tons of fresh fruit salad and a homemade baked good (muffins, scones, coffee cake, etc.) This was great for those of us who wanted something else in our bellies besides coffee and/or juice before the first dive. I almost always opted for a slice of her delicious bread of the day with peanut butter on it and a small clump of oatmeal.

When we emerged from our first dive of the day, Jayne had a full breakfast prepared. Sometimes it was a tasty and generous buffet. Other times, one of our two lovely hostesses, Lauren or Katie would venture around on the dive deck as we were removing our gear and take our orders (eggs Benedict, french toast, pancakes, etc.) Then Jayne would make us our breakfasts individually to order.

After the after breakfast dive, there was a snack, another dive and then lunch and then after the after lunch dive, there was a bigger snack before the before dinner dive followed by a full dinner with a special dessert. Homemade soup was always available as well. In between, Lauren and Katie were churning out and delivering cookies to the divers they baked themselves.

During our stay on the boat, I often caught Jayne by the stairs on the back deck with her canvas bag and asked her if she was going shopping. She was. As we were in the middle of the ocean, she did her shopping in the food storage locker located on the upper deck, not at Trader Joe's. 

Nautilus Explorer Hostesses Katie & Lauren and their delicious homemade peanut butter cookies
With the exception of the cookies, Jayne was churning out all of this incredibly delicious food on her own. Impressive is an understatement. So you know I had to worm my way into the galley (kitchen) and cross-examine her.

Lunch aboard the Nautilus Explorer
What I noticed from meal to meal was what a brilliant job she did creatively recycling the leftovers. One dinner's leftover beautifully prepared chicken breast became a tasty chicken enchilada option for the next day's lunch.

Breakfast potatoes bagged for repurposing and food for the fishies

Each day was had fresh baked bread at breakfast, fresh baked goods, and homemade dinner rolls at dinner. Every. Damn. Day.

Chef Jayne's homemade applesauce cake made with homemade applesauce and freshly baked pound cake
A visit to the Galley, which was surprisingly spacious, revealed two mixers, a standing Kitchen Aid and a large commercial one conveniently wedged underneath an appliance so it can still do its job if the boat is a rockin' and rollin', a challenge land-based chefs never face.

There is a large window in the kitchen. Jayne says sometimes dolphins and whales pass by as she's chopping and whisking away. How annoying.  Seriously. I need to order that feature for my own kitchen. 

One has to have a pretty nomadic life, to begin with to work on a boat. Jayne, one of the loveliest and most gracious staff members aboard, is from Belfast. She used to operate a restaurant in Vancouver until she got tired of it. Her son is still in Vancouver and earned a scholarship to the best pastry chef school there. Culinary talent obviously runs in the family.

More of Jayne's homemade bread
After leaving restaurant life in Vancouver, Jayne took off to explore the world doing some odd and interesting jobs along the way. She was a butterfly herder in Belize and sang to trees in Hawaii. Eventually, she found her way to a slice of Guatemala she fell in love with, purchased property and is now in the process of , with her boyfriend, building her dream house there. 

As for planning the meals, she joking calls Spirish (Spanish-Irish) influenced, Jayne made sure we had plenty of fresh greens and at least two proteins at dinner.  In addition, she catered to vegetarians, gluten free-ers and whatever other dietary restrictions came with the latest round of guests. She told me she likes cooking dedicated meals for people as she enjoys making them feel special and catered to. Wow.

Preparing mushrooms for soup
There is a set menu she is supposed to follow but Jayne is definitely a free soul and enjoys creatively riffing and improvising meals even though she always makes sure they are nutritionally balanced. Most times she said she didn't have an idea of what she would prepare for the day until she got into the galley in the morning. 

Although I never saw Jayne without a smile on her face or a sparkle in her eye, I had to ask if she ever feels stressed while singlehandedly preparing so much consistently wonderful food for so many people. She said she gets overwhelmed sometimes. When she does, she leaves the galley, walks to the back of the boat, sits and looks out at the ocean enjoying a chill moment until she feels refocused.

The Dining room on the Nautilus Explorer. Sitting on each table a great collection of Mexican hot sauces.

And focused she is. We had a full Thanksgiving style meal one evening along with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce, thick juicy slabs of prime rib with creamy mashed potatoes on another. Desserts were crazy good. Homemade shortbread with caramel pecan goodness, strawberry shortcake, warm apple crumble with ice cream, key lime pie, a different delight to punctuate each dinner. Lunches were often Mexican influenced in flavor and style and snacks ranged from homemade guacamole to seasoned edamame and sushi to generous and gorgeously presented cheese, nut and dried fruit platters, often accompanied by another freshly baked treat (blondies, brownies etc.). 

Homemade Soups & Sauces
When the boat is back in Cabo, the crew often only has one full day to turn everything around for the next group in between trips. Jayne has a driver that takes her shopping. She makes many stops from Walmart to Costco to local fish and produce vendors. It takes her the entire day to gather everything to feed the next boatfull of guests. She barely has any down time for herself in between voyages.

I loved my time on the boat. The great diving is a whole other post. Meeting and hanging with the top notch staff was a delight. They took excellent care of everyone. And as most happy guests are, we were sad to leave. 

Now back on land, I like to think of lovely Jayne smiling while working her creative culinary magic in the galley for some other lucky group of divers, occasionally gazing out the window as random marine critters pass by and dreaming of her adopted home in Central America. 


  1. That's a beautiful love letter to Jayne and the rest of the crew. Sounds like it was an amazing trip.

  2. What an amazing trip and yes, diving makes me very hungry! It's nice to know that even when you are out at sea for days, there is someone like Jayne putting love into all the meals. I've never been on a liveaboard but after reading this post might consider a dive on the Nautilus Explorer as a good first trip.

  3. Your trip is sounding better and better!


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