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A yacht chef shares recipes for an elegant New Year’s party

To help us leave a stormy 2012 behind and enjoy smooth sailing into the New Year, we turn to yacht chef Marianne Gardner.

She has spent over two decades on boats traveling through the Caribbean and Mediterranean, around French Polynesia and New Zealand as well as crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

And now she’s dropped anchor in Fort Lauderdale just in time to share her ideas for a New Year’s Eve feast.

You’ll find her recipes collected in Menus and Memoirs of a Yacht Chef, a self-published cookbook. It was four years in the making and contains more than 100 recipes and many memories.

“It’s a chance for people to get a glimpse of what it’s like to cook and crew on a yacht,” she says.

And although her lifestyle may at first glance be exotic, even glamorous, it’s not easy.

“I love the challenge of juggling a lot of balls and making things come together and making it look effortless,” she says of a skill she calls on while serving as not only the onboard chef but often also the stewardess, deckhand and engineer.

“Working on yachts is a challenge I’ve always enjoyed,” says Gardner, 53.

A typical morning might begin at 6 a.m. when she turns on the coffee pot. Her day is filled with cooking, making beds, doing laundry, helping guests get ashore, cleaning fingerprints off wood, fixing the engine, hoisting the anchor and placing mints on pillows. It doesn’t end until about 11 p.m. when she readies the coffeepot for the next morning.

That’s a normal day when the owner is onboard, but she has to be ready for anything on a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t like that for Gardner growing up on the plains of Alberta, Canada. That’s when she learned to cook from her mother. She remembers standing on a stool helping her make pie crusts or anything else she was preparing.

“My mother was an excellent cook and I always had a passion for it,” she says.

Over the years, her cooking skills grew as she threw parties for friends, read food magazines and dissected restaurant meals so she could improve them at home.

“I just really started paying attention to what I was eating,” she says.

In 1991, she went sailing with friends in the Ionian Islands of Greece. And that’s when she discovered her passion for boating. She returned to London, where she lived, and got her yacht training.

On the first motor yacht on which she served, the captain was not only a good seaman but also a chef who had trained at the Culinary Institute of America. When he wasn’t at the helm, he was in the galley showing Gardner how to make a sauce or improve her plate presentations.

“He took a shine to me and liked my cooking. So he took me under his wing to help me ‘gourmet up’ my food,” she says.

Trying her recipes, we discover her dishes are richly flavorful and elegantly presented; her recipes also are easy to follow.

“For me, cooking is as much about enjoying the process as it is about enjoying the food,” she says. “If you don’t have fun cooking, you shouldn’t do it.”

For the holiday, start with her New Chicken Cordon Bleu. Gardner remembers her mother making this dish by stuffing chicken breasts with ham and Swiss cheese.

When Gardner began living on her own, she wanted to host a dinner party. That’s when she called her mother and asked for the recipe.

She still has the scrap of paper on which she jotted down her instructions. “It’s traveled around the world with me,” she says.

But over time, she’s added her own “gourmet” touches. She uses smoked salmon or prosciutto and blue cheese to stuff the chicken breasts that you then coat with bread crumbs and fry until golden before baking to moist perfection.

Serve this with her Bourbon-Glazed Acorn Squash rings. Although Gardner doesn’t drink liquor, she likes to use alcohol to flavor dishes.

“It makes such a big difference,” she says. Here she pairs bourbon with maple syrup, fresh-grated nutmeg and butter to make a rich glaze.

Thinking not only of good flavor but making the plate look good, Gardener suggests serving the browned chicken and golden squash with peas, for color.

Our New Year’s Eve menu also includes her Strawberry Spinach Salad. On a yacht, she serves it on individual plates with the strawberry slices arranged like a flower on a bed of spinach. Then she garnishes each plate with a mango fan.

For the home cook struggling to get dinner on for guests, it might be easier to toss all the ingredients in a serving bowl and let people help themselves.

Her suggested New Year’s Eve finale is her Award-Winning Key Lime Pie. She developed the recipe while working on the 92-foot motor yacht Angel, which she helped take to the Keys and the Bahamas.

“I never liked Key lime pie,” she says. So she played with the traditional recipe to create a version that is lightened with whipped egg whites and cream.

The owner of the yacht liked this dessert so much he made Gardner promise to prepare it every time he was onboard.

In 2007, on the 75-foot motor yacht Viva, she was called upon to make this dessert again. But this time it was for a culinary competition.

She and the crew were in Tortola for a charter broker show. That’s when the boat’s captain, Mike McKee, who is now Gardner’s husband, entered her in the contest. She submitted her pie for judging and won a blue ribbon.

This pie has become Gardner’s signature dish that she makes about once a week while on the water.

“I can make these pies in my sleep,” she says. And being a yacht chef always on call, that’s a good thing.