Memories and Inspiration for Food, Travel and Life
March 2013 update –
Jane recently won peoples choice for her video through Saveur Magazine! Watch the video here.
JANE COXWELL | janecoxwell.com
PHOTOS: MEGHAN MCGARRY | WORDS: GENEVIEVE ERNST
Jane drums to music on an open cabinet door as she considers someone else’s pots. She picks one then slices off a sliver of raw steak and pops it in her mouth, slides across the floor in her socks, and peeks over at a steaming pot as she scribbles notes. “Alriiiight” she says, as Michael Jackson’s “PYT” comes on.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Jane has returned from the 99 cent store to a friend’s Manhattan apartment with a tiny food processor, which she raves about. You can make your own pesto—which is so worth the little effort—in the same time as opening a jar, she explains. Then she looks up and smiles at the slight exaggeration.
Today, Jane’s not working in her chef’s whites, but in a grey-blue James Perse t-shirt, black jeans and a long, swinging necklace with a whale’s tooth from Bequia. Her look is perpetually refreshed, her face only gently lined from years working on yachts that chase the sun—which she combats with an arsenal of creams she packs into old Petrossian caviar cooler bags. She smells faintly of perfume (212 by Carolina Herrera) and wears a swipe of mascara, but only on occasion. Her arms alone betray how long she’s worked, with faint lines and splotches from splattered oil, plating hot foods, and being surrounded by knives when working long hours. Sometimes she’ll quickly kiss one of her hands, in apology—and thanks. But right now they’re holding a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which makes recipe testing a South African curry feel less like work.
The kitchen table is covered with colorful pens, crumpled receipts, a knife-sharpened pencil, sunglasses, and cookbooks whose pictures she likes. Then spread over this is a layer of recipe-filled Moleskine notebooks that crunch nicely from being touched over and over with dripping hands. Wielding a large knife and some fresh cilantro plucked from a vase, she starts to chop. There is no distinction in sound between each movement of her knife. Just a ch-ch-ch-ch, sweep, and dump into the pot. It is fluid and without thought. All the while, she is singing and whistling and her head and knees bounce rhythmically, almost comically to the music, as her well-trained hands stay precise, gently peeling garlic cloves and grating lemon zest into her simmering pot. And there is always music—Nina Simone (when she’s not too sad), Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder. To keep cooking joyful and relaxed—meditative even—she avoids anything angry or rushed (“You’re never really going to make a beautiful picked herb leaf salad to like, Linkin Park,” she says. “It would be awful. It would beterrible.”)
Jane’s rhythm is interrupted today by having to actually measure out her spices, and to write her process into a recipe, further smearing her notebooks as she goes. She insists, framed by her happy, productive mess, that she’s much more organized in her own kitchen—a very tidy cook. And when she turns toward the stove again, the mess is forgotten—she immediately reconnects, putting raw and half-seasoned food in her mouth. She mixes with her hands, as she often does, whether it’s a light, luxurious quinoa with lobster or her simplest salad of fresh greens with lemon, agave, olive oil and Maldon salt.
The product of this day is a steaming bowl of rice with slivered toasted almonds and juicy lamb and beef curry, all topped with a little diced banana with lemon juice. She concedes this topping sounds weird for a curry, but it’s what her grandmother always did. While from her home country, this meal is not Jane’s trademark fresh style dominated by vibrant, unpretentious salads and healthy grains. Nonetheless, under her watch the traditional stew has been rendered not heavy, but perfectly busy and intensely flavorful, and filled with her own history and careful attention. It will be submitted to HarperCollins for publication in her first book, “Fresh Happy Tasty,” as “Cape Malay Lamb Curry” with a note on the diverse influences in South African food. The day’s work done, she sits down for dinner in the little kitchen. After a few bites she jumps up, grabs some cilantro, chops it coursely over her bowl with scissors, and goes back to eating.
In an industry with its own language, Jane Coxwell spends most of her working time in a “galley,” not a kitchen, as head chef on the world’s largest privately-owned sailing yacht. She lives in a “cabin”— an efficient, cookie-cutter room that can’t nearly accommodate a decade of buying rugs in Istanbul, grass masks in Ecuador, and cooking tools all over the South Pacific. This nomadic collector has storage units around the world, but not having a home base has afforded her views and experiences unimaginable, and a career cooking in quite an unusual setting.
And that “unusual” dictates a lot; for any top yachting chef, much of the job is preparing effectively: “off-charter” days are spent making yogurts, jams and cereals, and ordering staples to fill walk-in refrigerators. (Jane orders her fruit half ripe, half green, and monitors it daily, controling her finite inventory with tricks she’s learned over time. Moist towels over herbs must be refreshed. When one lettuce leaf wilts it will trigger the rest, so her second chef picks through leaves daily). There are accounts to settle and drills (fire, pirate) with the rest of the crew. And in each new location, she’ll be connected with a “local food expert;” to show respect for the cultures she’s exposed to, Jane brings their specialties and flavors to the guests on the boat, giving them a taste of the vicinity, even in the private comfort of a yacht. The local food expert is often just someone’s mother who knows the way to the village market and will take Jane (in her uniform with a walkie-talkie projecting the crew’s constant intercom discussion). Everyone will know she is foreign and attached to the massive sailboat in their sea of small motorboats and hand-carved canoes. In larger places, they’ll take out their camera phones for pictures. But then she’ll ask to try something local—and often unidentifiable—then express gratitude, and gain trust.
And after every working trip, these “yachties” get days off in exotic locales. Jane has swam with humpback and pilot whales, watched sea turtles hatch in moonlight, and drank cava root on a beach in Fiji, surrounded by 20 young crew friends. But the rest time, drills and orders are all in anticipation of “on-charter” time when the guests—bosses, their families and friends—come on board.
CNN describes the job as “having to create [five-star] dishes in a floating galley just four meters wide, with no staff or a supermarket in sight… The superyacht chef [is] expected to create sumptuous meals around-the-clock for an elite clientele accustomed to the very highest level of culinary expertise.” The movement and humidity provide challenges— a spun sugar cage over a cake can literally dissolve in the minute’s walk from the galley to a dining table. A chef on a 60-meter yacht tells CNN: “I might have one guest who is vegetarian, one who is gluten-intolerant, one who is kosher. So you might be doing three or four different menus each day… You can be the best chef in the world. But without that organization you’re going to crash and burn.”
In the summer, it is normal for two chefs to cook 3 meals a day for 25-35 people—for 5 weeks straight.
Jane Coxwell was born in Zimbabwe to English parents. By the time she was 10 months old, her father had finished moving their belongings to South Africa, with money strapped to his leg in every crossing. She grew up in turbulent Cape Town in the 1980s and ‘90s, skateboarding and being subjected to her older brother’s Madonna obsession.
When Jane was 15, she’d get in a taxi at 10:00am to go study at her best friend’s house, where they’d sit on a balcony with a quart of beer, listening to the Pixies. At school, she’d tell her geography teacher she was going to the bathroom, then sneak into her friends’ home economics class and eat cake. Jane’s high school headmistress told her parents she was “a little skabenga”—a rascal.
But when she graduated she moved to London, began working and quickly discovered that she was intensely ambitious.
If you want a job on a yacht, you go to Antibes. That’s what Jane read in a book at least. She’d never even cooked rice before she enrolled in culinary school, but her connection to the craft was immediate and after 10 months of training she wanted to actually do it, and now. She didn’t want to start as a line chef, making the same sauce hour after hour. She wanted to set menus, handpick her ingredients, cook, and plate her food. All of it.
And since childhood, her parents had worked and saved to take the family on beautiful vacations, her father surprising them with a little bag from which they unpacked flippers, bathing suits, and finally plane tickets to the Seychelles. Travel was experience and she wanted more, so she got yacht certified (fire fighting, first aid) and bought a plane ticket to the legendary Mediterranean city.
Jane spent her first yachting season as a second chef scaling, gutting and definning fish, scarring her hands in the process. She made club sandwiches for the owners at 3:00am, cooked simple meals for a 16-person crew—and cruised around Malta and Corfu. “I had never heard of Malta before and I certainly hadn’t heard of Corfu. I had heard of Greece but I certainly never thought I’d go to this tiny little island and live at anchor off the coast,” she says. “It was amazing….and I was really like: I could do this for a long time.”
Jane’s second boat was Serendipity Blue, 28 meters. This time, she was the only chef—for crew and guests. She remains good friends with Anne Elizabeth Jordan, who was the head stewardess. “I just remember laughing, a lot,” Anne says of her time with Jane. “She worked her ass off that first season. No one can understand what a yachting chef goes through with cancelled meals, surprise guests, picky crew and bizarre requests. She always managed and excelled. How soul depleting it can be in the beginning when someone asks for cheese toast after you’ve made a beautiful lamb dinner. No guest would know if Jane felt anything other than overjoyed to fix them the meal they wanted.” Anne describes a colleague—and friend—who was intense but lighthearted, with the occasional but endearing grumpiness of a small child, and always, always eager to see or taste something new. “Jane is curious about food, passionate about it, and treats it with a certain delicacy and respect,” Anne says. Her focus and vivacity—and firm refusal to be drawn into crew drama—earn her respect and affection. “People don’t like Jane,” Anne says. “They fall in love with her.”
After Serendipity Blue, she went for Monte Carlo, 40 meters. The boat belonged to the Halls, a former US ambassador and her financier husband who owned a winery in the Napa Valley. Just 23, Jane was much too young for the job as, for chefs, experience is hand-in-hand with age. The owners were coming on immediately though, so the captain agreed to take her just for the two week trip—after that he’d find an experienced chef. Jane didn’t want her colleagues to see how hard the leap was from little Serendipity Blue, so she’d quietly rise at 4:00am to work. By 7:00, she’d just be sitting at the breakfast table like everyone else. The Halls told the captain to keep her, and within 18 months Jane was flown to their winery to cook for a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“I went from cooking in the Caribbean… fishermen would come to the side of the boat, I was buying fish from them and lobster and these beautiful fresh things, like summery, summery food, beautiful salads and really great things that were all about the sun. But then to be launched into a Bordeaux house where the wine is predominantly red… that first event was overwhelming… the Napa Valley has the best chefs in the world.” It was overwhelming but it was a success; the Halls brought Jane along to cook as they flew between their boat and winery events in California. They were wonderful bosses and she thrived, eventually becoming Executive Chef at Hall Wines.
It was 2009 when Jane applied for her next job, and her agents put her forward to be head chef on a 100-meter yacht. She had a glowing recommendation from the Halls, but at 26 she was too young for the post, and was passed up. Then the new chef quit after 2 days, before guests even came on board. So when Jane was flown to Singapore to join Eos, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg’s legendary sailing yacht, she had a lot to prove. She threw herself into the 18-hour days and soon fell in love with cooking for this couple, their family, and their exceptionally kind and appreciative friends who came on board. Her food became confident. Von Furstenberg suggested she do a book. Jane had chosen between Eos and another yacht in a toll booth near San Tropez with the flip of a coin.
Fresh, approachable, simple, vibrant food is what has come from almost 10 years as a young chef, circling the world and saying yes to every street food, no matter how remote the place, no matter how peculiar the dish (once, in Vanuatu, she sat down to eat a bat, realized it wasn’t gutted, and was told by her eager hosts that it was a special treat to find a fetus inside). She is constantly touching, admiring and photographing food, reading books and following the careers of chefs she admires. But she isn’t a “foodie.” The word makes her squirm. Her favorite food, hands down, is pizza, which she considers a disability when she’s trying to be healthy (“I wish I grew tired of it! It’s such a wonder!” she says).
Her own cooking is unique, born from classical training, inspired by travel, and honed by making things work when constrained by time, space and resources. “When you’re on a 28-meter boat,” she explains of her first head chef experience, “you don’t have the place to store things, so you go shopping every day and after a season in the Adriatic when all you can get is courgette, and a mushroom, and a tomato, you really have to start thinking about those ingredients, you know? … I’ve had a tomato for the last three weeks, and these guests have been on for the last three weeks. What am I going to do with this to make it really, really great? And it’s obvious with a tomato: you can put a tomato on a plate, put some Maldon salt on and it’s a great thing. Then you can have a tomato and put like, a bit of olive oil and a basil leaf. Obviously that’s perfect. And then add a bit of mozzarella—these are classics. But then then you can get a tomato and you can put a little cilantro on it and a bit of cumin on it and that’s a great thing… you can put a tomato in the oven on a really high heat and make the skin black and you purée it, it’s incredible… You just start to really respect that that one ingredient… suddenly has two weeks’ worth of range.”
Though she’s outgrown the small boats, and is now making recipes to publish and share, she still uses that thought process to her advantage. To develop a dish, she’ll pick an ingredient to be the “hero” and build around it, adding and layering. The result is flavor that, whether familiar or exotic, is always multi-faceted and intense. There are no fancy foams or luxe ingredients in Jane’s food (with the exception of lobster which is often cheaper and fresher than chicken when you’re sailing). And there don’t need to be. At the root, Janefood, as her friends call it, is simple—just carefully balanced and allowed to shine. It’s bursting with flavor. Unapologetic, but never heavy. After a decade watching how humans feed themselves and their loved ones around the world, every meal, every recipe she shares, is rooted in caring that butter is easy, but toasted cashews lend that same richness. Quinoa, lean and full of nutrients, will fill a meatball just as well as refined white bread. During a meal you might be amazed by the flavors that come from her confidence (and by the realization that while you’ve used some of the ingredients before, this time you can really taste them). But it’s after, when you feel re-energized and well, that you know just how special it is.
It’s June 2011, and a tanned young woman is lying on a bench at Chelsea Piers in black pants and a white chef’s jacket with her tightly curled blonde hair pulled into the smallest of buns. To the sound of golf balls hitting the net of the Pier 59 driving range, she is reading Rolling Stone, which comes in her irregular mail shipments. In front of her is the rippling white glass IAC building, standing out from the wash of New York City skyline. Behind her is her workplace and home: Eos, a three-masted Bermuda rigged schooner the length of a football field in British racing green. It is literally breathtaking. It’s in the United States for the first time ever, and the crew is thrilled.
When Jane and her colleagues roll up to the Jane Hotel one Tuesday night (in what appears to be a ‘70s-era limo that conveniently passed the docked boat) the crowd that tumbles out is conspicuously attractive—not to mention perfectly tanned, and able to put back a few drinks. As always, they are making the most of the free time they have. In Oslo, they’ll go hiking, in Montenegro, they’ll go camping and rafting. But it’s diving Jane raves about. “It’s just the best thing you could ever do because generally you’re in a beautiful place, and you’re underwater and it’s like being in a forest filled with animals and the most beautiful insects and you’re weightless and no one can talk to you. It’s perfect. All you can hear is your own breathing.”
She’s looked up at swells of hammerhead sharks in Nicaragua, fed coral to a massive turtle that followed her like a little dog, and found herself face-to-face with a dolphin in Tahiti that began mimicking her body movements in an experience so remarkable that whenever possible she makes someone else who was there tell the story. (Without witnesses, “I would never be able to explain that to anyone. Ever. It would always sound like a story that never happened like, ‘My fish was this big.’ Any time anyone on the boat says ‘dolphin’ I’m like, ‘Have I told you about my dolphin experience?!’ God it was the BEST. I wonder what that dolphin’s doing now,” she says, grinning.)
Because the Eos captains and owners are great, the crew’s turnover is exceptionally low. The bond is “incredible,” Jane says—like a family. It can be a challenge to eat breakfast with 20 people every morning, but Jane finds little places to be alone: she exercises on a spin bike in the engine room, and meditates in her dry store. But at the moment, in New York, there isn’t much time to herself. Yes, they’re squeezing in fine restaurants and Broadway shows when they can, but aside from their usual tasks, the crew is preparing for the launch of a new perfume by one of their bosses, Diane von Furstenberg. For Jane, as head chef, this means preparing a menu and making hors d’oeuvres for 100 to be passed as the boat cruises around the Statue of Liberty at sunset with press (Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar), friends (Wendi Murdoch, Tina Brown), and executives from von Furstenberg’s company on board. Between raves about von Furstenberg (“the effortless queen fashion diva”) and the boat’s size (“the yacht was so major and mega that it took up the entire space between two piers, 59 and 60”), Vanity Fair called the food “the yummiest.”
And then there is the book, already overtaking Jane’s thoughts as soon her galley, with her gleaming counters and her familiar pots (and yes, her music) will be off-limits when the boat goes into the “yard” for a tune up. For Jane, it will be a few months without guests to feed—a moment to make that cookbook von Furstenberg suggested.
By May of 2012, that book is almost finished. And it has changed from what Jane imagined, making lists of recipes when she was on the boat. “I was so excited to come and to write it,” she says of this first cookbook. “I was all ready and set but… in my head I wanted to make a book that I felt everyone could use, that was a go-to book, a friendly voice.” After a grocery run in Connecticut, she realized people outside New York or California wouldn’t be able to find all of her ingredients easily. “So I changed a lot of the recipes, just little things… which I think was a good thing because really the last thing that I want, or that I would want to project, is that I’m making food that would be difficult for other people to make because it’s so easy and it’s so simple. I’m lucky—and I’m unlucky—that I didn’t spend a lot of time with other chefs. So the food isn’t chef-y.”
In six months, 100 recipes have been made 3-4 times (once to see if it should be included, once for the photo, sometimes again if the photo wasn’t right, then slowly and painstakingly to record the process that comes to her naturally). A first book is a daunting process when excitement and anticipation meet the reality that beautiful, bestselling cookbooks are made by small armies of specialized, experienced people. Unwilling to compromise, Jane played chef, prep chef, art director and cleaner at her shoots, and employed the talented photographer-and-stylist team she worked with while at Hall Wines. And the photos are paramount—every single dish has been photographed to convey the approachability and fresh, colorful beauty of her food. Anything that could sound complicated has been captured step-by-step to reveal its simplicity, with Jane bouncing around in her colorful t-shirts and jeans, chopping and stirring between sips of beer.
But the rest of the time, it’s just been her in the kitchen alone: cooking, measuring, taking notes. And as her deadline looms, there is the anticipation of the boat returning to the water, and a busy season with lots of on-charter days. She’s anxious, wanting to really deliver and have a stellar season on board to thank her bosses for the book opportunity in a way she’s unable to with her words.
But in the meantime she’s staying focused on her recipe testing. She is emphatic that everything should be personalized by the reader, and it will be—everyone’s palate is different, everyone’s handful a different size. But she also wants to convey a feeling, and provide recipes that are perfectly clear so each reader can trust this book that invites anyone to pick a song (never rushed, never angry), pour a glass of wine, focus and play.
Pre-order her cookbook at Amazon – Fresh, Happy, Tasty by Jane Coxwell