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Seasoned At Sea

Lessons from salty cooks

Idrop the spice bottle. It bounces a few times, whirling between contacts with the kitchen floor, heavily peppering the tiles in a rapid-fire, triple-Salchow of “More Spice” creole seasoning.

“Don’t sweep it! I’ll use it off the floor!” screams my boyfriend.

He’s only half kidding. You see, we have a problem: we don’t have “more spice.”

We are supposed to be in a rented beach house right now. Enjoying the salty humid Atlantic coastal air; visiting the local fish market in search of ingredients for a big dinner, on what would be our first annual seaside vacation with the extended family.

Most importantly, we would be replenishing our depleted stash of use-it-on-everything-but-can-only-find-it-in-select-US-states More Spice creole seasoning.

If you’re like me, you’re cancelling trips, working from the dining-room-cum-office, and spending a LOT more time in the kitchen—cooking and baking enthusiastically—and maybe even rationing spices from your culinary travels.

This reinvention of how we work, travel, and cook, has reminded me in many ways of my days living on a sailboat—including being flexible about ingredients.

Although a landlubber now, I was inspired to reach out to my saltier contacts for their advice on cooking my way through turbulent waters.

“The chefs that really excel out there are the ones who can create on the fly,“ says Gavin McClurg, owner and founder of Cabrinha Quest, which runs kitesurfing expeditions around the world aboard the catamaran Discovery.

“All of our trips are 10 days. The [chefs] who have a food plan for 10 days? They don’t make it,” laughs McClurg.

“I’ve hired a lot of super-yacht chefs that come off big boats in the Caribbean, and they can’t make it even two days, “ he says. “They’re used to having access to everything—you know, having stuff flown out by helicopters.”

(Er, I mean, of course I know… my spice-delivery helicopter is just in the shop.)

On board the Discovery

Which is why McClurg praises S.V. Discovery’s chef, Thais Escalona: “Chefs like Thais are just unbelievable, they can adapt to wherever they are.”

“You always discover new ingredients, recipes, combinations… All of this pushes you to constantly be learning and evolving,” says Escalona. “That’s why for me travelling and cooking go together, and are more of a passion and a way of living.”

In listening to Escalona’s cooking tips it’s clear her approach is in many ways a lifestyle. For example, she advises triaging fresh ingredients in combination with being flexible with your wants. If one ingredient spoils faster than another “Cook it today, even if you feel like having the other thing,” she says. “Just try to prepare it in a different way and surprise yourself!”

She also advises minimizing waste. After prepping fish, she uses leftovers for soup, sauces or “just to boil rice or pasta — that’s how you should cook a proper paella,” (Escalona hails from Almería, Spain).

Speaking of fish, “a bottle of brandy always comes in handy, especially for seafood,” she says.

“I encourage every home chef to try to adapt the dish you want to create, with what you have handy.”

Breakfast at sea

Escalona is well practiced at adapting.

“We understand how currents and wind work probably better than anybody,” says McClurg, “but you still get skunked — you can’t control the weather.”

What you can count on are the daily rituals of breaking bread. Which is why McClurg puts “heavy emphasis on having incredible chefs on board.”

The crew of Discovery were sailing a charter from the Maldives when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. The only port for thousands of miles was the Seychelles, but the country closed its borders before they could make landfall. Running low on food and fuel, they would spend five weeks before being admitted into the country.

“During this difficult time we were quarantined in confinement,” says Escalona.

Facing uncertainty, and like many of us in this pandemic, Escalona turned to cooking.

“For me it was a great therapy. When I’m in the galley I forget about everything and enjoy myself.” Escalona says cooking raised the spirits of the crew too: “it was a great feeling to eat that good in this difficult time — it was a surprising nice meal almost every day!”

Across the globe, sportfishing charter captain Mike Weinhofer is giving residents of Key West hope via special meals too, thanks to fresh fish.

“To go out and buy fish is more expensive than steak,” he explains.

Weinhofer quickly realized that while charters were on pause he could use his means to catch fish for the community. So, with the help of his two teenage daughters, the captain started taking orders by text and set out to fish for his neighbours.

Mike Weinhofer

“I get to spend some special time with my daughters, and they get to help give back to someone else, and see what a big deal it is for other people to get fresh fish… It’s a special meal. Kinda cheers people up, makes things better.”

Some of Weinhofer’s past charter clients sent fuel money for his boat, and other local charter captains and guides donated additional fish for distribution.

“The best part is when people send you pictures of the fish they’ve cooked, and the smiles and the happy faces,” he says.

And so, I prepare to cheer up my boyfriend over the spilled spice.

I may not have enough to make Weinhofer’s suggested recipe (Onion-Encrusted Yellowtail with Mango Salsa) but I’ll take McClurg and Escalona’s advice to adapt and be surprised by the results.

Variety may be the spice of life; but I’d say flexibility is the “more spice” — especially when the seas get rough.

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