Caro Uy won first prize in the 2010 Tortola charter yacht show culinary competition.
Chef, 58-foot sailing catamaran Toucan Play
Congratulations on taking top honors in the chef’s competition at the 2010 Tortola charter yacht show.
Thank you. I was awarded first place for both the entree and dessert categories, second place for both the appetizer/salad and the coffee categories, and finally was awarded best overall. I was astonished—and delighted, and amazed, and did I say delighted?—by the results.
One of the charter brokers said to me afterwards, “My dear, you’ve swept the awards,” and I suppose I did, but I still haven’t quite absorbed it yet.
Do your cooking skills come from a lifetime of being in the kitchen?
My personal food philosophy does have its roots in my childhood. I grew up in a family of passionate gourmands for whom the pleasures of the table—good food, wine, conversation—were (and still are) the focus of family life.
Where did you grow up?
My home town—inasmuch as an incorrigibly itinerant heart like mine can ever claim a home town—is Sydney, Australia. This is a city built around the glorious blue meanderings of a spectacular natural harbor, a city that looks east towards the open sea. It is also vibrantly multicultural, and its sights and sounds and smells are made the richer and the more varied by all the many nationalities who now call it home. I feel that both these characteristics of my city have formed my life choice. I cannot imagine ever living away from the water, and I was lucky enough to grow up with the flavors of a hundred countries on my plate.
Did you attend culinary school?
I am largely self-taught—by osmosis, as it were. Many of my childhood memories involve messing about in the kitchen. My mother was happy to let me experiment from an early age. Some of my concoctions must have been utterly dreadful, but my parents swallowed them all, or at least made a decent pretense of it, with great good humor.
My mother and father also adore eating out. From infancy, I was toted about with them everywhere, from tiny, hole-in-the-wall eateries meant to be typical of some exotic cuisine or to fine dining restaurants with old-fashioned gueridon service (this was the early 1970s, after all). They never ordered me a dull children’s meal—only ever an extra plate, on which they would put bites of whatever they were eating themselves. The glamour of “grown-up food” generally managed to seduce me into trying most things.
I honestly think that a great deal of the food presentations I do by instinct are actually an expression of my childhood memories of plates of food at various restaurants.
So, no formal training, then.
When I grew older, I always seemed to gravitate towards jobs in hospitality and catering, even when I was still at art school studying to be a graphic designer. I’ve had the good fortune to work with many chefs, and though I have no formal training or papers, I was lucky to have learned, in practice, good basic classical French technique. I really believe that sound basic technique gives you the structure to express any flavor or flavor combination you wish. It is like learning to play a piano. If you have a natural ear, then once you have the basics of notes and chords and finger placement, you can play any music you hear or compose in your own head.
Every day at work, I find reason to be thankful for this, as it gives me enormous flexibility to play with ingredients. I can really fine-tune and custom-tailor my food for my guests.
Do you have any specialties?
I love, love, love choosing one ingredient and presenting it in different ways on the same plate. And my favorite things to cook personally change constantly—I have intense flings with some ingredient or other every so often. Just now, my loves are playing with christophines (a wonderfully versatile and sadly under-used vegetable) and also different styles of presenting Kurobota pork belly (its very fine-grained and tender sweet flesh is gorgeous).
On charter, it is a different story. I absolutely live for that air of blissful contentment that happy and well-cared-for guests radiate, so you could say that my favorite things to cook are whatever creates that air of contentment. I am very flexible. My guests are on holiday, and the point is to spoil them thoroughly. So whether they want my five-course dégustation menu or big, juicy, homemade burgers, whether they want peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into star shapes or they want us to pith and barbecue the live, wriggling lobsters they’ve snaffled, whether they want my white chocolate-saffron-rosewater panna cotta with pink peppercorns and hibiscus syrup, or they want homemade triple chocolate fudge brownies, we’ve done it, and will do it!
We pride ourselves on our emphasis on homemade fresh food—everything from the salad dressings to our sauces. We are always experimenting. I do things like tea-smoked duck breast, and my own gravlax; we make fresh pappardelle and our own bread, too.
How did you get into boating?
At one point in my 20s, I was living on a pretty little sloop in a marina, and my then-boyfriend and I ran a wee catering company that eventually turned into a small restaurant. This experience proved enormously helpful to me when I began my first job as a charter chef. Portioning and plate sizes, menu planning, client liaison, stock control, and such were already part of my work identity.
And even when I was plunked down into a completely new country, I knew how to hunt down the provisioners who deliver restaurant-quality produce at wholesale prices. My charter guests benefit from this, as I can offer them choices beyond the standard for the category of charter yacht on which I work.
Do you enjoy the travel aboard boats as much as the cooking?
My travels are an integral part of my cooking. Before becoming a charter chef, I lived in Spain, France, Egypt, and briefly in Mexico. My wandering feet and curious nose have also taken me to Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech republic, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Thailand, New Zealand, England, and a little of America. The food of each country represents so much of its history and culture, and it is one of the best ways to learn about a place and its people—the simple conviviality of sharing a meal. I’ve loved so much of what I’ve seen and tasted, and it is one of my great pleasures to be able to share this with my guests.
How did you end up aboard Toucan Play?
I met my wonderful husband, who is also my very able captain, when we were working as dive instructors in the Sinai. We’ve been together for 10 years now, married for eight of those years, and we share a love of the sea. We were married on a beach in Sydney, ten minutes away from my parents’ place. In the years we were there, he enjoyed social sailing—weekly races, regattas and whatnot. He began doing yacht deliveries and got his skipper’s license, then the sailing school asked if he would be interested in working as an instructor. After about a year and a half of training other people to work in the crewed yacht industry, it occurred to him that there was no reason he and I shouldn’t go and do it ourselves.
We flew to Antibes, thinking we’d end up working in the Mediterranean, but instead we ended up getting a job offer with Voyage Charters in the Caribbean. We thought we’d try it out for a season to see how we liked it. And here we are starting our fourth season, so the answer must be an unequivocal yes!
We worked a bit aboard the sailing catamarans Bliss and Yes Dear before being assigned to the original Toucan Play for her very busy penultimate season as a crewed charter cat. When she was sold, the owners requested us as crew on the new boat—the current Toucan Play. We’ve been on her ever since.