Bravo’s Yacht Chef
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Fans of Bravo TV’s popular series Below Deck may wonder what handsome, talented Chef Ben Robinson is like when he is off-camera. The reality show, a kind of nautical Upstairs, Downstairs, tells the story of what goes on behind the scenes in a luxury mega yacht as it cruises the Mediterranean. Robinson is in charge of making meals for finicky wealthy guests as well as the hardworking crew, while cameras film the process.
Both Sides of the Atlantic
The product of an English father and an American mother, the single, 34-year-old culinary artist who owns a home in Fort Lauderdale owes his sexy accent to his European upbringing, but his foray into the glamorous world of yachting is the result of childhood visits to this side of the pond.
His family summered on Cape Cod, where he saw yachts come and go regularly. When his brother suggested he get a job on one of them, he signed on as a deckhand. In addition to his maintenance and cleanup work, he began to do a bit of cooking. “The captain realized I had a lot of skill in the kitchen,” Robinson recalled. “He said to me, ‘What are you doing washing my boat when you can cook like that?’ Then he took me to the kitchen and told me, ‘This is your new office.’”
Years later, Robinson landed the TV show gig by answering an online ad for the job. “It was late at night and I’d had a couple of drinks, so I sent off an email,” he said. Two days later, he got a casting call.
High Stress Profession
Robinson is passionate about his profession, but the job isn’t easy. He typically gets a day off just once every six weeks, and he once worked four months straight without a single one. His days begin at 5 a.m., and he often spends 19 hours in the kitchen. “I’m the only chef there is,” he said. “I don’t have a helper, and there are 12 crew members and nine guests. I get breakfast, I make pastries from scratch, and throw something out for the crew. Then I do crew lunch, guest lunch and guest hors d’oeuvres. Then it’s crew dinner and guest dinner and midnight snacks. And everything has to be great. It’s a stressful job.”
Having camera and lighting crews traipse behind while he works in the already cramped quarters of a yacht kitchen makes it even more challenging. “They tell us we have two jobs—one is your actual job, and the other is being a cast member,” he said.
Keeping Guests Happy—No Matter What It Takes
Guests frequently request dishes with exotic ingredients, and Robinson does his best to provide them. “I have a lot of contacts, and I can pretty much get any ingredient in the world within 48 hours,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to keep the guests happy.”
He recalled one day when an imperious Russian guest insisted that he simply must have black truffle and porcini mushroom risotto for dinner—that very same night. The yacht was traveling between Sardinia and Sicily, and Robinson hurriedly dispatched a crew member in a small, fast dinghy to head into port and hunt down the needed ingredients. “Happily, the guest got his porcini and truffle risotto that night,” Robinson said.
Although he is meticulous about everything he does in the kitchen, he is especially careful about presentation. “I want every plate to look the same, and have amazing form, composition and color,” he said. “It’s like I’m doing nine little paintings. I really get into the moment when I’m plating.”
He enjoys dabbling in molecular gastronomy, a technique that explores the science of cooking, and the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur during the process. One of his favorite dishes in the genre joins together blocks of sushi-quality tuna and salmon. “It’s an amazing delivery—bright orange and bright red,” he said. “It’s slightly provocative, and I think food should be provocative. On a yacht, people are looking for the wow factor.”
How much of what happens on the show is impromptu, and how much is planned or even scripted? Robinson isn’t allowed to talk about it, but he admitted that some events are enhanced for drama. “When you film a reality show, you have to be more expressive than in normal life,” he said. “We’re trying to tell a story to an audience.”
Keeping It Fresh
Where does he see himself in the future? Maybe he’ll travel or write a book, he said. “The key to success is to keep learning, keep it fresh and open new doors. To be a good chef, you have to challenge yourself.
“This is just the beginning.”