Below Deck sailed onto the scene in 2013, leaving in its wake a sea change across reality television as a genre. Audiences tuned in to the show—and its many offspring—to get a first-hand account of the $175,000-per-week charter trips of such exalted guests as Roy Orbison Jr. and the Queen of Versailles.
What separates shows like Below Deck from other reality programming is the amount of unrestricted access into the lives of people making a living mixing drinks and cooking five-star dinners for the exorbitantly wealthy. So, just how real is this account of luxury on the open ocean? "Poor management, poor behavior, bad seamanship," says David Skolnick, an accomplished yacht chef. "I've never seen the sorts of shenanigans they show in real life."
I spoke to real-life yacht chefs to find out what it's really like cooking at sea.
Karolina Wojtasik / Bravo / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images BELOW DECK SAILING YACHT -- Pictured: Adam Glick -- (Photo by: Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Restaurant experience is not required
Rachel Cunningham grew up in New Zealand, but spend the better part of her life exploring the world. "Yachting allows me to travel and get paid for it," says the 32-year-old chef. "The world is my home, and super yachts are just part of my commute." Cunningham dabbled in a lot of industries before settling into the yacht life—travel agent, tech journalist, website developer—but never thought about pursuing a culinary degree before becoming a yacht chef.
"I always had an interest in cooking, but never really considered going to culinary school," says Cunningham. "Nothing about that appealed to me. The high cost of the education followed by low wages and an unsociable career afterward? No thanks. I kept cooking as a passion. While I traveled, I would stop in small villages and watch locals preparing food."
She "knuckled down" after her first yachting job, spending weeks meticulously studying cookbooks and researching recipes online.
"I worked late as often as I could trying new techniques and learning more about high-end ingredients," she says. "I was so hungry for information and wanted to be better. The great thing about yachting is that once you have your foot in the door, and you persevere and work hard, you can continue upwards easily."
Skolnick is self-taught, as well. "Initially, I learned from public television: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, Frugal Gourmet, and others," he says.
The hours are brutal
On a mega-yacht, 100-hour work weeks are the norm.
"I've worked on busy yachts where it was not uncommon to work 16 hour days 7 days a week while on charter," says Cunningham. "It's easier to do when you are younger, but it's not sustainable and many yacht crew burn out working like that."
She adds, "A more realistic yacht experience would entail a yacht chef working 12 hour days, 7 days a week while looking out of the porthole at a gorgeous white sand beach but never going ashore."
... but the tips are ridiculous.
Cunningham has a friend who made a charter tip of "just under $40k per crew member … with more than 30 crew working." That's about a million dollars in tips total.
The day-to-day isn't that much different from a hotel
Cunningham's day usually starts at 6 a.m., where she heads from her room to the galley to prep breakfast and get organized. She values mornings as the only part of the day where she can make coffee and gather her thoughts.
Pastries go in the oven, guest are made fruit platters and charcuterie boards, which are sent out with the stewardesses. In the event kids are on board, Cunningham will pull out pancake and waffle batter—because what kind of kid doesn't want pancakes and waffles? Unlike Below Deck, Cunningham's been fortunate enough to work with a sous chef; they come in around 8 a.m. to work on crew lunch and dinners. From there, breakfast is made, the galley is cleaned, lunch and dinner get prepped, and so on until the guest is full.
"Depending on the guests, we can close the galley down as early as 8 p.m. or as late as 1 a.m. when we have party guests on," she says. "I've worked on yachts where it's normal to get a phone call at 2 a.m. for wagyu burgers or chocolate brownies because the guests have the munchies. It can be quite demanding."
You can't just pop out for sugar on the sea
One of the most difficult aspects of being a yacht chef is knowing that you can't just pop out over to the corner shop when you run out of an ingredient. "In general I start with Google," says Skolnick. "Online shopping and curbside pickup is the silver lining of COVID. In particularly limited places, or where the language problem is significant, I'll use a yacht agent. The key is flexibility in the face of substitutions."
"I once bartered sheets of gold leaf with micro herbs with another yacht while in Antigua," says Cunningham. "You have to get creative and really think outside the box."
Skolnick notes that the yacht kitchens are exceptionally small, so creativity is paramount: "Limited tools. Limited power. Limited space. Limited storage. Limited shopping," he says. But you make it work. "One of my mentors, chef Bernie Meehan, told me 'a good cook can make anything, anywhere, with anything.'"
The meals are as good as they look
"We source ingredients from all of the world for our guests," says Cunningham. "I use a variety of provisioners to do this, some of them specialize in high-end products from Japan and parts of Europe. None of it is cheap! I just did an order for some wagyu strip loins for $100 a piece. We get the best caviar, sometimes spending tens of thousands of dollars on it, especially when we have Russian guests. Truffles are pretty much standard. It is pure decadence. Of course, if we get really stuck and need things delivered ASAP, there are always the boss's helicopter on the aft deck to use."
Charter guests aren't all that bad
Below Deck is one of those shows that puts the … rampant insanity of the rich and famous on display for the rest of the world. Obviously, not every guest is a Doris—in fact, some of them can be pretty darn cool.
On one of Cunningham's favorite charters, the guests "were so friendly with the crew," she says. "The kids would run into the galley every morning to watch us cook, and the adults always had a glass of red wine in their hands. One night the men came into the galley to ask why they chefs were not drinking (we do not drink at sea, or on the job, as a rule). They thrust a $1500 bottle of red wine at us and demanded we share a drink with them. It was a lovely gesture, and I was all too happy to oblige. After all, the guest gets what the guest wants, and who am I to turn down a beautiful bottle of full bodied red wine at 11 p.m. after working 14 hours straight?"