“I'm not going to lie: I didn't work for any real foodie foodies. They all proclaimed that they were, they ate in a lot of very fancy restaurants, but they were kind of restricted by being on ketogenic or supermodel diets.”
Chef Harriet Mansell is talking about the five years she spent working on superyachts for some of the world’s richest people, including the Qatari Royal Family and the Murdochs. It’s a world she describes as “bonkers” numerous times during our interview.
“I’d have guests who would tell me the precise millimetre size they would like their crudités,” she says. “You have to be able to cater for anything and everything at any particular moment.”
Life on board some of the most luxurious vessels in the world had its unique challenges. Ingredients were sourced from provisioning agents and picked-up at port, or from local shops and markets. Sometimes they were, inevitably, flown in by private jet. “Mostly, yacht owners don't bat an eyelid at the cost, money is no object,” she says. “I remember the first time I heard how much it costs to fuel up the boat. I found out it was €150,000 per tank. And we fuelled up pretty regularly.”
Despite some outrageous requests (the woman whose dog “only eats wagyu”; the request to prepare a veritable Chinese banquet with three hours notice), Mansell says much of the time her employers wanted to eat quite simply. Lavish food was often just for show, whether to impress guests or social media followers.
“A lot of the time people just want salads.”
“If there’s one takeaway it’s that when I worked for a lot of these people I thought that they would want really fancy food a lot of the time, but actually they don't, because it's their day-to day-existence,” she says. “A lot of the time people just want salads, you know?”
Fancy salads no doubt. Or there was the time an owner wanted to skydive onto the boat and do customs and immigration right there, which the airport staff agreed to. It didn’t happen, “but the point is all arrangements were made because no request is too much on a superyacht,” says Mansell.
Growing up in Devon, in the Southwest of England, Mansell went to “a bit of a lefty primary school,” she says. “We used to scurry around in the fields.” This early experience in the mud set her up well for a stage at Noma as a young chef, just as the restaurant returned to the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. She describes the experience as “eye-opening” (has anyone not?).
“In your first month you’re picking herbs and learning how to clean and process plants you’ve never even heard of before,” she says, “and realising that in the restaurant, a lot of the processes of extracting flavour typically didn’t involve actual cooking... it made me go, ‘Bam! There’s a heck of a lot more to food, isn’t there?’”
Back in London, debt-ridden after cooking school, and following not entirely satisfying stints at Dinner by Heston and the now defunct Hedone, Mansell ended up, via a ski season, applying for yacht jobs for a bit of quick-fire cash. Not long after, she found herself as the sole chef aboard a 60-metre motor yacht owned by the Qataris in the Seychelles; and then the Murdochs; and a man called Mr English, “who would have a full English every day.” The salaries, like the yachts, were enormous in comparison.
“The best I received was a €3,500 tip for a three-day charter."
“In my last role, I was earning a €7500pcm tax-free salary, plus tips – which could be anywhere upwards of €1000 euros for a week,” she says. “The best I received was a €3,500 tip for a three-day charter. When you think of what people are paying for the yacht for the week, a 10% tip distributed amongst the staff can be quite something. I was on £21,000 a year as a chef de partie in London.”
Fast forward to the present day, and the closest Mansell gets to seagoing vessels are the small fishing boats in the harbour at Lyme Regis. The Dorset town is home to her first permanent restaurant, the 32-cover Robin Wylde, which she has funded herself following a successful pop-up of the same name, using the money she made at sea.
Mansell's Robin Wylde restaurant in Lyme Regis, England.
Offering a nine-course, regularly-changing tasting menu, and with a strong focus on local producers, the restaurant is as English seaside/countryside as its Brontë-esque name suggests. Think celeriac with hazelnut, cured egg yolk and Dorset truffle; baked river Teign oyster with wild garlic and apple; and seafood martinis to kick things off.
“I buy directly from the fishermen, the quality’s insane,” she says. “People, producers and farmers care so much about the land, it's a real labour of love – again, I buy from them directly. And beyond that, the wild produce is just so readily available and abundant. There are so many great varieties of seaweed and sea herb. Just a bloody good area, I have to say.”
Not everyone shares her hyper-local ethos, however. After discovering that the landlord of the local pub catches line-caught sea bass she offered to buy from him, only to be rebuffed. It turns out he makes a lot more money selling to restaurants in Dubai. And during a recent appearance on the Great British Menu, when chefs were being encouraged to shine a light on regional food, Mansell was surprised to find many were still using ingredients from the other side of the world. “I can't compute why you would do that because there's so much here,” she says. “I love the idea of going down the rabbit hole of British cuisine and pushing it to whatever we can.”
"On a yacht, you are essentially trapped with the same few people with no respite."
Mansell says her time at sea shaped her into a highly organised and adaptable chef, able to work in confined spaces, and incredibly quick at prep. It’s all put her in good stead for opening a tiny restaurant with just three in the kitchen. “When you are on land, things are a bit more simple. The floor doesn't move, things don't fall on your head, you can access shops for ingredients or order deliveries with ease,” she says. “Plus, you have breathing space. On a yacht, you are essentially trapped with the same few people with no respite; you work very long hours, and are on call 24/7. Life on land in kitchens can seem a bit of a breeze in comparison.”
But life as a restaurant owner in England at the moment is far from breezy. At the time of writing, the UK is under another total lockdown due to the pandemic. It’s been stop-start since Robin Wylde opened in October, and Mansell is going to need all her resilience and adaptability to get through it. To weather this storm, she’s going to have to get her sea legs all over again.