Two chefs working in a dining room, it is surrounded by a vertical hydro herb garden

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Credit: Studio KMJ - Switzerland

A new leaf: The greenest kitchens on board superyachts

4 August 2022 • Written by Georgia Boscawen

Forget flying ingredients in from around the world – today’s superyacht chefs are taking a greener approach, from sourcing locally to growing their own, discovers Georgia Boscawen

We’ve all heard the crazy stories – Caribbean charter guest sends private jet to Japan for prized cantaloupe – and for a long time it was common for superyacht chefs to fly food in from every corner of the globe. Fortunately, times are changing, and the future of provisioning is looking more sustainable, as planet-conscious chefs seek out methods of sourcing produce that are inherently greener.

The approach is multifaceted, from relying on local produce to futuristic on-board cultivating, but it’s not all plain sailing – the conditions for growing food at sea are challenging, as plant cells behave differently when subjected to seawater, ultimately preventing osmosis. Nevertheless, there are some chefs and companies finding innovative ways to make it happen.

“As much as we want it, it is quite hard to move away from [imported provisions] entirely when we are trying to source the best products,” says the head chef of 130-metre of Flying Fox. “But, we will always strive to do so. We will go onshore to the fresh market on a daily or weekly basis and add the local specialities to our menus.”

Credit: Winch Media

One of the major hurdles for chefs is convincing guests to reframe their expectations of traditionally “luxury” ingredients – think Beluga caviar, for example, which can easily be replaced by its more sustainable lumpfish cousin. “We have to be realistic here,” says the head chef of an 80-metre yacht and founder of The Superyacht Chef website. “The boss’s wife is going to want Thai mangos flown in, snow crab from Alaska and foie gras from France – it’s just a part of it.” However, chefs are going the extra mile to source equally rare and impressive new ingredients to help make the transition to more environmentally responsible fare, says the chef on board Flying Fox. “We sourced exclusive olive oil from a 900-year-old olive tree. Despite only producing 900 bottles a year, we sourced this product [and now use it in] the yacht’s kitchen.”

Cruising in exotic regions can actually be a golden opportunity to source unusual and exciting ingredients for guests and to help open their eyes to more sustainable options, as Robin Besnard, head chef on board 60-metre Formosa, explains.

“Most of the countries I have worked in while on board Formosa have excellent local products, with everything we need to please a guest readily available, and prices and costs are much more attractive most of the time if we provision locally. As a chef, you always need to adapt, using the products you have to create the best dishes to offer to the guests. It’s challenging and exciting, and it’s what makes this job beautiful.”

Credit: Fraser

The solution, however, isn’t always as simple as relying on local suppliers – when yachts venture further afield, remote settlements often rely on imported goods as much as the provision companies, says Besnard. “Wherever you are in the world, every country imports provisions. In every shop, butcher or supermarket in Costa Rica, for instance, most of the meat is imported from America.”

It would be nigh-on impossible to eliminate imported goods entirely, even when relying on local suppliers who may have to procure goods from overseas themselves. The Superyacht Chef explains that, on average, 80 per cent of the galley would be imported if you are based in America, and this isn’t only because of guests’ expectations. “How long do you sustain more than 30 crew on a diet of [only] plantain, fish and beans, just because it’s local?” he asks.

So, while it may not be possible to rely exclusively on local provisions, there are some yachts out there demonstrating that this isn’t the only route to becoming more sustainable, by venturing into the future and cultivating herbs and vegetables on board.

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“On Excellence, I started to grow a range of micro herbs such as bull blood [a beetroot leaf with a sweet and earthy flavour], radish, broccoli, purple basil, red vine sorrel, cress, thyme, lemon balm and pea shoots,” says chef Danny Davies, who, after working as head chef on the 80-metre Abeking & Rasmussen, acted as head chef on board Ahpo, the 115-metre Lürssen new build. “Micro herbs are just the first and second leaves of a regular herb or plant, they are harvested at this point and are packed with flavour and look pretty. "It was difficult to find these micro herbs in and around the Caribbean and Bahamas, where we normally chartered. Flying them in via a provision agent costs a small fortune, but the impact they have on a dish makes all the difference.” 

While microgreens are small, they pack a flavoursome punch, which is why they make their way onto most fine-dining dishes. These small and mighty greens are also packed full of antioxidants; a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that they can be 40 times more potent in phytochemicals than their mature counterparts.

The addition of superyacht-grown greens can also pique the interest of those on board, as Davies discovered. “The guests were mainly happy to hear about my green fingers, and a few even came to the galley to see my setup and had a discussion with me about what grows best,” he says.

And growing your own doesn’t always mean relying on the newest technology, as Davies’s relatively simple arrangement on board Excellence proved. “My setup was six black plastic takeaway containers and rockwool [a sustainable mineral fibre] as my growing medium. I ordered seeds from Amazon and got to work,” he says. 

“The micros don’t need a lot of space to grow. I watered them every morning with a spray bottle filled with the water and plant food solution, and after eight to 12 days under the lights, they were ready to harvest.” The success of onboard cultivation eventually saw Davies introduce a hydroponic grow tower to grow lettuce, kale, strawberries and basil. “We tried radish, carrots and beets as well, but the winners were the leafy greens.” he adds.

Credit: Yacht Green GMBH Germany

The 62-metre Feadship Sea Owl also demonstrates successful onboard cultivation with her sundeck garden producing a healthy yield of herbs. Jim Dixon, managing partner and creative director at Winch Design, remembers the project well. “With Sea Owl, we incorporated a dedicated herb garden on the sundeck that not only allows the chef to pick from a variety of fresh herbs at any given moment but also eliminates the need to order herbs from elsewhere,” he says.

So, what does it really take to cultivate herbs on board? Axel Massmann, founder of yacht-green, a company that specialises in cultivating green spaces on board yachts, explains the technology. “The technical requirements are a supply of fresh drinking water connected to an automatic irrigation system and a sensor that will measure the humidity.” He adds that given UV light destroys artwork and carpets, superyacht herb gardens will need specialised lighting to protect the interior. After a couple of days’ training, the chef would be able to comfortably grow plants on board – although the notion of becoming entirely self-sufficient is unattainable. 

“As human beings, you need so many different elements of plants, you would need potatoes, salad, herbs, and you can’t grow all of that on board. The vessel would have to be 10 times larger than the yacht itself for a family of five and a crew of 10.” Nevertheless, this doesn’t make growing vegetables on board an unworthy cause – in fact, it is quite the opposite. “A yacht is like a spaceship,” he says “and incorporating new technologies on board helps to further its development. Where governments and universities are limited, superyachts can take a vision and help to further its maturity.”

Currently, Massmann is working on a superyacht project called Symbiosis in collaboration with Swiss designer, Kurt Merki Jr and master mariner Glenn Dalby. The project incorporates a couple of new green features on board, including The Sanctum, where herbs, spices and vegetables can be grown and harvested by the chef. And while those in charge of the system would need to be relatively green-fingered to ensure that the plants have what they need, the technology is largely automated, administering water and fertiliser when needed.

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Credit: Guillaume Plisson

NASA has also been researching cultivation systems for long-range space missions, which is how Jason Hirst, the founder of cultivation solution Evogro was inspired to create a cabinet growing system for the imperfect environment. “The cabinet creates an enclosed, protected environment for the plants, and the system is monitored daily by the grow team who are aware of any tasks that need to be done and then inform the catering team to do these tasks,” Hirst explains. “The system would be attached securely so it will not move in rough seas.” Costing £6,800, the Evogro Plant Growing System is just one of the options currently available, and incorporates more than 120 crop models. “Some of the popular crops that our chefs like to grow and typically find difficult to source include nasturtium [which has a sweet and peppery flavour], citrusy shiso, tree spinach, fenugreek and Thai basil.”

So why are these systems likely to become more popular in the future? Hurst explains that it’s not only about miles, but a zero-waste option too. “Food provenance is of the upmost importance to chefs and by using the Evogro system their salad leaves, herbs and microgreens are grown right in their kitchen all year round with zero waste, as you only harvest what you need, when you need it.”

While you may not be able to grow enough produce on board to be fully self-sufficient, the practice is a step in the right direction, saving not only on cost, but food miles as well. Herbs such as those listed above are often difficult to come by and growing them on board means there will be a constant supply, given the right planning. “I would plan in cycles to coincide with charters but after a few weeks at it I was in the groove and every week I had fresh micros to harvest and new seeds to sow,” says Davies.

Credit: Winch Media

What’s more, growing cabinets such as the Evogro system are far from costly to run and are powered from a standard 220-240V/50Hz AC supply with a typical daily electricity consumption is 3.2kWh – that translates into approximately 79p per day at average UK electricity prices.

While relying exclusively on local produce may be a little way off, chefs across the industry are taking steps to provision locally while meeting high expectations. Technology to facilitate growing produce on board is here, and we are already seeing the tangible benefits of growing your own on board. Chefs, it seems, are welcoming the challenge with open arms.

First published in the July 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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