It’s the morning of the annual chefs’ competition at the Antigua Charter Yacht Show, and James Howard, first-time participant from the 142-foot (43.2-meter) Palmer Johnson Lady J, is as primed as a fuel pump at the Monaco Grand Prix. He’s been ready for weeks, if not his whole life. The 30-year-old chef has a passion for perfection in cooking technique, and his submission to the judges was a lobster delicacy.
“I’ve been working out that dish in my mind for about a month now,” Howard says. “I spent a great deal of time just with the cooking process, trying to find the exact temperature and timing where the lobster, at its cooking point, turns from translucent to opaque—the precise moment when you want to stop the cooking. I experimented at 45 degrees [Celsius] cooking it sous vide for half an hour. Then 50 degrees … then 51 … 52 … I got to 55. At 56 to 57, it started to get too opaque, so 55 was the magic number. I’d say we went through about seven or eight lobsters. The crew was definitely loving me that day.”
He’s hoping the judges will love him too.
“They are used to seeing amazing dishes; you have to stand out,” he says. “You’re talking about a month’s work—so much passion—on a plate.”
Originally from Yorkshire, England, Howard became hooked on gastronomy during an apprenticeship in Cannes, France, at age 16. After a few seasons as a chef in the South of France, he participated in a cook-off in Monaco that landed him in the galley of a yacht, which he enjoyed.
But, as the story typically goes at that age, he had to go see about a girl.
“She was studying in Paris, and we went out to this little restaurant, and the food was terrible—the wine was fantastic, but the food was terrible,” Howard says. “I was chatting with the owner over a couple of glasses of wine, and I told her what I could do with the menu. She said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ So at 21, I’m suddenly the head chef of a restaurant in Paris.”
After nearly three years of Howard stoking a reputation in the Paris foodie scene, the sea beckoned. He was young and curious about the world, and the charter lifestyle seemed a perfect fit.
“Moving around from place to place on a yacht, I get to play with more ingredients than with a land-based job,” he says. “I love being able to modify the menu each week, depending on where we are. I’m constantly searching for new ingredients. If I see something interesting, I’ll buy it and experiment with it. Traveling the world has its perks as well. I find it amazing that you go to Mexico and Thailand and they use many of the same ingredients, but how they use them is totally different.”
Even in his free time, Howard says, he incessantly marries flavors in his head. He imagines most of his creations and the way they will taste even before he procures the ingredients.
“I’m always waking up at night with ideas and jotting them down,” he says. “For most of my menus, I’ll open my fridges and brainstorm. On a boat, I’m alone in the galley a lot, so I’ve got loads of time to think—not just about the menu, but also the technique I can to use to make it extraordinary.”
For the tasting menu in this month’s Cellar & Galley, he aimed to showcase that technique.
“Take the swordfish carpaccio, for example,” he says. “Everyone knows swordfish is tough, so it’s not typically thought of for a carpaccio, but in this particular cooking process, it actually really takes well to being cooked and tenderized in the acidity of lemon and lime.”
Results of the chefs’ competition were announced later in the week. While Howard didn’t take home the trophy, he was right at the top in the scoring.
And his melt-in-your-mouth swordfish carpaccio was the best carpaccio I’ve ever had. I can only wonder what other surprises he must have in mind for future charter guests of Lady J.
GALLERY: Tips from the Chef
For charter information: churchillyachts.com