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chef koo

Chefs who cook in remote areas?

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What's life like? How did you get your job?

 

I've been a chef for a while now and I'm looking to work in a remote camp (oil, mining, off shore, ect), but I've heard a lot of stories and I'd like to get the straight dope on the situation.


Edited by chef koo (log)

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I'm not a chef, but I've traveled for a week on a tow boat as a passenger and eaten the food. My husband and I were stewarding a yacht for a dentist friend who wanted to move his boat from Biloxi, MS up the river to a berth at my FIL's marina in Memphis, TN. It was cheaper to pay for a tow, hitching a ride with the tow boat which travels 24/7 than it was to pay for fuel and motor the boat upriver under it's own power. My first husband was a merchant marine with a tankerman's license. That allows one to on- and offload hazardous cargoes like crude and refined petroleum.

 

He worked 30 days on and 30 days off, with 6 hours on and 6 hours off, 7 days a week for his 30 days on duty. Then he would come home for 30 days. It worked the same for the cook, only their duty was to prepare three meals a day, 7 days a week, and then be off for the evening. The best part, is at least with this company, is that the cook did not have to do any clean up at all, just the cooking. My husband's status as a tankerman classified him above a deckhand, but apparently not far enough above them to spare him from joining them in the clean up duties. He said the food was good, but complained bitterly about one of the cooks who did not wash her hands and would smear (cross contaminate) food all over the kitchen, including the drawer and cabinet pulls. This created a lot of extra work for her clean up crew, and she was understandably, very unpopular. From the perspective of the cook, though, it seems that they can get away with quite a bit as long as the food is good.

 

As cook, you'd be feeding 12-25 crew, depending on the size of the boat and its cargo of barges you are assigned to for that trip. While we lived in Memphis, living near a port wasn't necessary. The company flew crew to pick up points from all across the country, and in fact, my husband had to fly to meet his assigned boat more often than not. My husband's experience was that he was assigned to different boats as needed, and the crew varied too, so you might be working with different people all the time. He stuck with it for a couple years while we were together and eventually would wind up on repeat boats, which usually stuck with the same captains and got to know many of the crew members. The cook usually had his/her own stateroom, but accommodations can vary widely. Once my husband was assigned to a smaller boat and complained of having to share a "hot sheet" with the crew member who relieved him on his 6 hour off shifts. Eww. Also this stateroom was near the engine compartment, so it was noisy, vibrated, and it was difficult to sleep. That was the only time it happened, I'm just saying don't expect the Waldorf, but it is usually not that bad. Our stateroom as passengers was quite pleasant.

 

The money is very good, but you have to be away from your family. I was working, but making much less than I could have as a cook on one of these tow boats. I thought it would be ideal for us for me to hire on as cook on the same boats as him, so we could be together. It turns out that the policy (late 70's/early 80's) is that they don't hire young, pretty women because it distracts the crew. I'm sure I could pass that requirement now, but even if I could have then, further policy is that spouse's do not serve on the same boat. There are, of course, exceptions made for captains who wish to have their wives on board. The captains are Gods on the water, so you had better make a point of getting along with yours.

 

The food was a lot of meat, potatoes, vegetables, breads, desserts. Your eaters are mostly hard-working young men with huge appetites. Some of the captains got extremely obese back then, I don't know about now. Food is given very high priority, and is one of the few perks of working on the tow boats. Food budgets are ample, and the cook is responsible for menus and ordering supplies from the marine supply stores along the Mississippi. These stores send out supply boats with your order and fuel barges, and the tow boats are refueled and supplies are laded as they continue to travel upriver or down. At least the company my husband worked for realized the value of good food to crew morale and retention, and the cook is a valued position on these boats.

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It's been a long time since I worked in bush camps but I think a lot depends on the size of the camp. Small camps might not even have a bull-cook to take care of the non-cooking work (the bull cook works in the kitchen but only cooks bullsh*t). A large camp might have many cooks and a lot of support. I spent a couple of weeks working where a company was building a hydro dam and they fed us because we didn't make a dent in their budget. Still remember getting served a plate of mash and a steak that draped over the sides and having the server ask if I wanted another one. I also worked in more remote locations with just a half dozen people besides the cook (make sure the boss agrees to have people rotate washing dishes but you will still end up doing most everything). Generally the supplies are only limited by availability and storage (where we didn't have power). If the food shipments are only weekly or less frequently then it takes more planning.

 

In my experience people in these situations eat a lot. They burn calories and are bored. Think football player calorie intake. I once saw someone come off a 20 hour shift and order 20 eggs since he had 12 after a usual 12 hour shift. Make sure you can bake. Bad cook: made a cake-box cake and figured it would last two days. It didn't even hit the table as it was passed around until it was gone. Good cook: "I went through 3 cases of chocolate chips this summer! Everyone would sit and eat cookies until dinner was served. Usually budget is not an issue but be sure to check before signing on. On the other hand, you may have workers who only want meat and 3 veg, so flexibility is important. It may be hard to provide variety within people's comfort zone.

 

There are other things to consider. Will it be a dry camp? I have heard claims that some cooks used those so that they could get away from booze for a while. Will you flip out when the drunks sneak into the kitchen and add garlic powder to your muffin mix? Are you outgoing enough to keep the workers happy but self-sufficient enough to survive the isolation? Can you get along with people you would cross the street to avoid if there was a street? If you love nature it really helps.

 

If you end up doing it - I would love to see you post your experiences.

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