World News

Secrets of a superyacht chef cooking for the 1%

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Grace Dvornik is pretty used to cooking in tight spaces. She measures out ingredients before getting started, chops vegetables in advance and always cleans up as she goes.

The trick, says Dvornik, is “thinking about time and motion, it’s almost like choreography.” That way you avoid constantly opening and closing the fridge or getting stuff everywhere.

But unlike most 31-year-olds, Dvornik didn’t come to this realization through a decade of making dinner in cramped apartments.

Instead, Dvornik spent her twenties cooking up a storm on superyachts in the Caribbean, Bahamas and the US, rustling up meals for the 1% and perfecting the art of five-star cooking in often-tight galley kitchens.

And while her workspace might be small – and the job demanding – when Dvornik goes out on deck, she’s greeted with azure waters, sunshine and a billion-dollar boat with all the luxury trappings.

More recently, Dvornik’s expanded her repertoire to also include corporate aviation. Preparing meals on private jets equals an even smaller space and an even more pressurized environment – often her clients are only in the air for two hours, but they want to dine in style for the duration.

“It’s really fun,” says Dvornik. “It’s a great career.”

Falling in love with the water

Although Dvornik grew up enjoying cooking with her grandparents in her hometown of Clearwater, Florida, she became a chef by accident.

She stumbled across sailing when she graduated college with a theater and painting degree in 2015.

“I was just looking for an adventure, something different to do – especially for that summer when I graduated – and spontaneously applied for a job on a traditionally rigged sailing vessel,” says Dvornik.

On that first boat, Dvornik worked primarily as a deckhand. But when she wasn’t sweeping the deck or helping with the boat operations, Dvornik could be found in the galley, acting as the chef’s assistant.

“It was a lot of scrubbing pots and pans or peeling potatoes or helping with prep work, that kind of thing,” says Dvornik.

The boat was a wooden sailing vessel built in the 1870s, and the tiny galley only held a wood burning stove. But Dvornik observed that, for the boat’s chef, these limitations were just opportunities to get creative.

Over the course of that summer, Dvornik “fell in love with sailing.” When her contract came to an end, she applied to work on another sailing vessel. This time round, Dvornik was strictly a deckhand. But she still snuck down to the galley whenever she wasn’t on duty, assisting with meal prep and watching the chef at work.

After that contract, Dvornik started researching the yachting industry – she was intrigued by the promise of good pay and the chance to see the world.

“I loved sailing and wanted to have more opportunities for travel while being able to put more money into savings,” she says.

Still, Dvornik was unsure if she’d be hired on a yacht – she had zero white boat experience. She also loved the idea of working as an onboard chef, but had no formal training. She sent off applications anyway and got a surprising response.

The more I worked in the yachting industry, I built a bit of a name for myself. So captains or crew would recommend me, clients would recommend me to their friends.”

Grace Dvornik, private chef

“I was hired as a chef right away on a 64-foot sailing yacht,” says Dvornik.

This was an incredible opportunity – and a baptism of fire.

“I think looking back I’m surprised that I was able to do what I did,” says Dvornik. “It was almost like an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of situation, where I didn’t know what could go wrong, or the downsides of it.”

Dvornik pre-planned meals as much as she could, but also embraced spontaneity and creativity. She leaned on her theater degree too, acting “the character of the chef” when need be. Dvornik says that even today, her acting education is “her biggest asset” – and she’s only half-joking.

“When I present a meal to my clients, and they want to know where I got the idea or where the produce came from, I’m able to tell the story in a more interesting way,” she says.

Since then, Dvornik has completed some formal training – at the UK’s Ashburton Chefs Academy and George Brown College Chef School in Toronto, Canada.

She’s never worked in a restaurant, but she has cooked on land – at several private estates, including Wyoming cattle ranches. She’s also volunteered at a mental health nonprofit called Jae Foundation.

More recently she’s switched focus to working in private aviation, but Dvornik still has most experience at sea, where she’s worked as a chef-for-hire on private and charter yachts, ranging from 60 to 130 feet long.

“The more I worked in the yachting industry, I built a bit of a name for myself,” says Dvornik. “So captains or crew would recommend me, clients would recommend me to their friends.”

Life in the galley

Whether she’s on land, at sea or in the air, Dvornik always starts by learning her client’s preferences and requirements.

“Allergies are the most important thing, of course, and then dietary restrictions or certain diets would follow,” she says. “I’ve accommodated most types of diets – keto, paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free.”

Dvornik will kit out the galley according to guests’ dietary requests, but she’ll always have extra produce on board too. Once you’re out at sea – or cruising 30,000 feet – it can be hard to accommodate a last-minute request, so it’s best to be prepared.

“I’ve been told before that people are very strict – no desserts, no dairy, no gluten, and then they get on board and because they’re on vacation, they want dessert with every meal or they’re fine with dairy and gluten, so you have to be able to adapt that way,” Dvornik says.

“Even if someone says ‘no desserts,’ I always keep at least ice cream or some type of chocolate on board, because there’s always a craving.”

On yachts, Dvornik’s also accommodated requests that verge on the eccentric – no green beans on Thursday, no pineapple in the morning – “little quirks,” as Dvornik calls them.

“Grilled meat has been requested with no grill marks,” she adds.

Dvornik’s also catered for clients’ pets and kids, some of whom eat the same haute cuisine as their parents, some of whom prefer chicken tenders.

Whenever she is faced with a surprising or more challenging request, Dvornik draws upon her theater background. In improv comedy, there’s no such thing as no – your approach is always “yes and.”

“If someone makes a request, in this type of field, ‘yes’ is the only option – because you want to go above and beyond for the client. And most of the time they’re willing to pay what they need to pay to have those items,” says Dvornik.

“So it’s, ‘Okay, yes, we can do that. And how can we make it special? Or how can we make it more memorable from the last time.’”

Every yacht guest is different, and Dvornik’s become adept at adapting not only her cooking, but also her work style and on board demeanor.

“There will be some clients on a yacht who interact with the crew all the time, and they’re very laid-back and they don’t care if the table has decorations on it, and maybe they come in the galley and hang out and talk all the time,” says Dvornik. “But then sometimes you have people who are more formal, and they want the table set with full place settings and are a little more formal in that regard.”

Dvornik’s clients are ultra-high-net-worth individuals – she says they are “innovators in technology, former US politicians, owners of professional sports teams, owners of well-known lifestyle brands, and Middle Eastern royalty.”

“I don’t get starstruck but to avoid nerves, I remind myself to do the best job that I can for that particular client,” says Dvornik. “In my personal experience, I haven’t had many celebrities.”

As well as accommodating a range of clients, Dvornik has also acclimatized to a revolving door of colleagues-slash-roommates. A yacht might be swanky, but the crew quarters are always tight: think bunk beds, shared bathrooms and no privacy.

“I think I’ve become very adaptable, just working with so many people over the years,” says Dvornik. “But I’m always just myself, and that’s the best way to go.”

While yacht deckhands – who are in charge of the yacht’s exterior – and yacht stewards – who are in charge of the exterior – work in a team, the chef usually works solo. But every meal service is a “collaborative effort” with the rest of the interior team.

“I’ll coordinate with the stew and say, ‘Okay, this is what I’m planning for the meal tonight. What are you thinking for table decor?’” says Dvornik. “We’ll coordinate on the flow of service and if there’s multi-courses, coordinate in that regard.”

Dvornik’s food is only ever as good as the service. She never wants meals to be sitting out, getting cold, so a good working relationship with the yacht stewards is key.

“I’ve had times where I’ve needed to communicate, ‘We need to pick up the pace here, because I am going to start plating, and then we need to get these dishes out as soon as they’re ready,’” she says.

It’s also Dvornik’s job to cook meals for her fellow crewmates. She usually whips up something similar to what she’s prepping for the guests – it makes things easier. But she’ll occasionally add in a few treats or prepare a crew member’s favorite meal.

While yacht crew are usually confined below deck, Dvornik says there are opportunities to enjoy the perks of living on a superyacht.

Certain spaces are off limits – “you would never go into the master cabin and just hang out there” and respect is key – “the boat doesn’t become the crew hangout when the guests leave.”

But “maybe the crew would have a movie night in the lounge or the main salon,” says Dvornik.

“Sometimes owners allow the crew to use the boat or maybe take the tenders on days off – things like that.”

What it’s really like ‘Below Deck’

For those who’ve never chartered a yacht themselves – AKA most of us – the closest we get to seeing what it’s like on board is the Bravo reality TV show “Below Deck” and its various spin-offs.

The show, which first premiered in 2013, follows young yacht workers’ day-to-day lives on board gleaming white vessels. Below Deck’s always been popular, but took on a new lease of life during the pandemic when the incredible locations, outrageous guest requests and compelling crew interpersonal drama offered the perfect slice of escapism.

Such is the popularity of the series that Dvornik’s parents are forever stressing to their friends that while yes, their daughter does work on yachts, no her life isn’t much like “Below Deck.”

Dvornik says while she doesn’t relate to some of “Below Deck”’s on-screen “craziness”, it is true many yacht workers embrace a work-hard-play-hard lifestyle.

“It may be a little bit exaggerated,” she says of the on-screen partying. “But yes, yacht crew definitely love a nice party and love going out, blowing off steam.”

Yacht crew definitely love a nice party and love going out, blowing off steam.”

Grace Dvornik, private chef

The pay in yachting is “excellent,” says Dvornik, and yacht crew are often excited to splash cash on days off.

“Because a lot of your basic needs are taken care of when traveling – your travel expenses, or your meals while you’re working, things like that – there is extra money to go out and spend on a nice dinner or to go out and have a fun night on the town.”

Dvornik’s noticed that the popularity of “Below Deck,” which is also on various streaming services internationally, has “sparked a lot of interest in the yachting industry.”

“People are joining because they’ve seen the TV show, and they think it’s very interesting, they want the opportunity to travel,” she says.

Dvornik’s reputation in the yacht industry and social media presence (she has over 73,000 TikTok followers) has caught the attention of the “Below Deck” production team, but Dvornik is adamant she’d never appear on the show, even though she’s been “contacted by casting and producers many times.”

“I’ve always respectfully declined. It’s not my style,” says Dvornik.

Plus she’s pivoted to commercial aviation in the last year. There’s yet to be an equivalent reality TV show lifting the curtain on the private jet industry, but Dvornik posits that such a show could generate “big interest,” even if getting a camera crew on board a private jet might be tricky.

“I don’t know logistically how it would work,” she says. “But I think it’d be very interesting.”

Up in the air

Dvornik started working in private aviation last year, after some friends who worked in that arena encouraged her to give it a shot.

In contrast to a yacht, on a jet Dvornik is usually the only employee on board, besides the pilots. She acts not only as chef, but also as server and chief flight attendant.

Dvornik enjoys this challenge – she sees making reheated food taste and look incredible as a skill in itself.

Say, for example, a jet client requests a meal from their favorite restaurant.

“It’s not as easy as just ordering and then serving on board,” explains Dvornik. “Maybe you have to order that meal the night before, because you’re serving it for lunch the next day and you aren’t able to get that item in the morning. You really have to plan and communicate with the restaurant.”

Dvornik’s culinary background allows her to think up workarounds. If a client wants steak from their favorite restaurant served medium, Dvornik will instruct the restaurant to cook it medium rare, so the meal won’t get overcooked after it’s reheated on board.

And until the flight is in the air, Dvornik will keep all the elements of a dish separate – each ingredient of a salad will be boxed up individually, garnish and dressings divided – to avoid it getting soggy.

The goal, says Dvornik, is maintaining the “integrity” of the dish, even at 30,000 feet.

One element that’s similarly unpredictable both at sea and in the air is the weather.

On a yacht, Dvornik will adapt a menu if she knows she’s sailing into stormy seas – she’ll be more likely to slow-cook dishes in the oven, and will avoid using knives as they can be dangerous in rocky waters.

In the air, Dvornik will find ways of maximizing a shortened in-flight serving time if turbulence hits.

In the past Dvornik’s been on boats where the power’s gone out, so now she always packs a headlamp. On a yacht, there’s always the option of using the grill on the yacht sundeck, illuminated by her flashlight. Dovnik always packs the headlamp on flights too.

“Most of the time, I use my headlamp if I am working onboard the plane but the power is not booted up,” she explains. “For example, if I spend a day on the plane in the hangar to take inventory, clean and organize, it’s not feasible to have the power running all day.”

She’ll also use the flashlight to check the airplane interior for any stray smudges or fingerprints – cleanliness is of the utmost importance in luxury travel.

A big misconception of Dvornik’s job is that she is “on vacation all the time.” She’s not – sometimes on yachts she only sees sunshine when the boat docks and she goes to take the trash out.

But working in private aviation, Dvornik gets to spend a bit more time exploring.

“Layovers are a time to explore the city,” she says. “And from a culinary standpoint, that’s such a fun opportunity, I recently was able to go to Italy and spent one whole day with one of the pilots walking around and exploring and we found some really unique places. And I was able to bring some items back for the plane to serve on board.”

Dream job

Dvornik loves traveling for a living, but she admits there is a trade off – and it’s one that her friends and family have become very familiar with.

“I’ve had friends recently who got married, and I had to tell them, ‘I won’t be able to attend a bachelorette party, I may not be able to attend a bridal shower,’” she says.

But Dvornik made sure to prioritize the actual weddings – working freelance gives her a little more flexibility to turn down jobs for special events when necessary.

And while she hates to miss big life events on land, Dvornik says she wouldn’t trade her job for anything.

“I’m so grateful for my career and that I was able to make a career out of my love for travel and for cooking,” she says.

“There has been a lot of really hard work behind the scenes – whether it’s taking care of myself, so that way, when I go back to work, I know I’m refreshed and ready to go. But also learning new skills and keeping up with culinary trends and what’s going on in the food world. It’s a really wonderful job.”

This post appeared first on