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#GirlsWithKnives Interview: Nicole Poirier on Cooking While Sailing the High Seas

Meet Nicole, the talented Content Development Chef at Anova Culinary. In her previous life, she mastered the art of cooking on the high seas as a chef on yachts. Needless to say, this was a badass accomplishment and we are inspired by her grit and story.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up in a semi-rural town in Rhode Island, where my family spent the summers doing three things: growing an insane vegetable garden,  sailing, and having people over for dinner. I went to school eventually to study mathematics and economics in New Orleans, but the pull of the (literally) rockin’ kitchen became too strong after spending a few years as a trader for Fidelity. I dropped the corporate life for something, well, a little more creative and adventurous.

How did you get on your first boat?

The stock market had taken a minor downturn and I had an opportunity to try out something new. Until then, my only professional cooking experience had been as a short-order-cook at a breakfast joint slingin’ eggs. Armed with very little experience, I went to Newport, Rhode Island, and applied at every local catering company to hone my skills. While there, I found myself a crew agent (someone who helps potential yacht crew find employment). I took every single job that came my way, from sanding freshly-varnished tables to cleaning engines with a toothbrush. In yachting, you MUST network, and that may mean spending time doing activities that have nothing to do with the job you want. It’s also an unspoken rule that you better mingle with other “yachties,” which in all honesty means putting in some bar time.

What are some of the challenges of being on a boat rather than in a traditional kitchen? How did you overcome them?

The challenges of being in a boat kitchen, or galley, are numerous. It’s always moving, even when you’re not going anywhere. Space is tremendously limited, as is access to a fresh water supply or even a reliable electric current, depending on the boat. A yacht chef can’t usually just pop out to the store for an ingredient, so you have to plan menus down to the detail well in advance, and each menu must specifically be tailored to the wants and needs of the paying guests. Oftentimes, the freezer is under the floor, as is a lot of the storage. Pots and pans must be locked into place while cooking, and a rogue wave can completely destroy any careful work you have done. Life on the waters is very humid, which has a huge effect on baking and the shelf-life of your foodstuffs. There are so many things that make cooking on a yacht different and more challenging, but after a while, it’s nothing.

Did being a woman hurt or help you in any of these cases?

There are quite a few lady chefs in the yachting industry, and we do tend to get both lower wages and less respect than our male counterparts. On my first “permanent” (as opposed to freelance) chef interview, the captain said to me, “You know, I can sexually harass you while we’re out at sea and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.” I was 23, I wanted the job even though it was clear he was trying to deter me, and I literally just smiled and awkward-laughed. I had an overweight captain constantly get on my case for being “too big.” I grew a thicker skin, but I never forgot.

Do you have any weird, fun, or eccentric stories that still make you laugh?

Oh, my word – crazy stories abound! Dinner for 17 with 20 minutes notice when the boss said they were going out for dinner that night? Catching the primary guest with a laundry-list of food allergies ON SECURITY CAMERA eating all of the things she said she was intolerant to? Having a wave knock over a big bowl of pot de creme and having liquid chocolate covering the galley and dripping into the engine? Or hitchhiking home in St. Barth’s at 5 am after dancing all night only to have to make breakfast at 6? Hahaha – I think that entire period of my life makes me laugh. It was fun, delicious, and completely rewarding.

Now that you are no longer a private chef on yachts, how do you think that experience made you more resilient?

Once you have worked on boats, you come away with an “anything-is-possible” attitude. I have yet to encounter an issue or obstacle that I am afraid to tackle when it comes to cooking, and it is so much easier when you CAN pop out to the store and your oven isn’t swinging back and forth or leaning to one side. It also helped me learn how to plan menus and meals, trained me in the FIFO (“first in, first out”) refrigeration method, made me storage rock star, and most importantly, schooled me in the arts of professional email conversation and lowest-common-denominator cooking. It is the last piece that I feel was the clincher in having a successful business and a stellar reputation in the Bay Area. With all of the food trends and special diets out there, I was able to set myself apart by accommodating multiple dietary restrictions without breaking a sweat.

What are some tips you have for women who are trying to make it in the food world?

There IS more than enough work for all of us if we’re willing to hustle. Food trends are ever-changing, so read everything you can and test things out by indulging at somebody else’s spot or playing in your own kitchen. One of the greatest networks I have right now is a group called SF Lady Chefs, and we formed organically – six chicks having apps and wine at a bar turned into 90+ private chefs, caterers, restaurant chefs, both new and experienced, who meet every other month to learn, eat, and drink together. We still have a lot of respect and contact with our male counterparts outside of the group, but the sisterly support and friendship within is amazing.

Tell us about the women who inspired you and helped get you to where you are now in and out of the kitchen. 

On boats, off of boats, I have always been blessed to work with and be intellectually supported by strong women who speak their minds. If I could encapsulate the words of wisdom passed from each of them to me, it would be “GO FOR IT.” You will never reach the goal if you are too afraid to pursue it.  Sometimes, you have to make the leap and test that everything will fall in place. Even if it doesn’t, you still walk away knowing that you are not afraid to try something new, with the confidence that you can start over as many times as necessary to get to your best place.
Another message one of my mentors recently said to me and at such an opportune moment was, “As women, we need to remember to never put another woman down.” We are all struggling in one way or another, no matter how it looks from the outside. The only way for all of us to rise up is to rise up together. 

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