For the past few years, South African Jane Coxwell often doesn’t know where she is when she wakes up in the morning. That’s because since 2009, she’s worked as the personal chef to designer Diane von Furstenberg, and Coxwell spends much of the year on board the Eos, the yacht owned by DVF and husband, Barry Diller (the rest of the year, she cooks for her in New York City). She’s had the opportunity to traverse the waters of Europe, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia, the Caribbean and South America.
Coxwell released a cookbook last month, Fresh Happy Tasty, and DuJour recently spoke with her as she was preparing to fly home to South Africa to visit family before joining DVF and Diller on the Eos in the Mediterranean.
Click through the gallery to see some of Coxwell’s personal snapshots of her globe-trotting life.
What made you want to work on a boat?
I knew I wanted to travel when I left [culinary] school. The idea of working in a restaurant didn’t appeal to me. I was so excited about cooking. I wanted to do everything: I wanted to buy the food, plan the menus, cook the food, plate it and know the people that I was cooking for. When I found out about this industry, it just seemed like a perfect fit.
How big is your kitchen on the Eos?
It’s a pretty good size, probably five meters by five meters. The storage is amazing; it’s [located] three stories down from my kitchen with four huge walk-ins. I have a giant walk-in freezer, a giant walk-in fridge, a giant walk-in storage and a dairy fridge.
How many burners on your stove? How many ovens?
It’s six-burner stove, and I’ve got three ovens. I’m really lucky because this is the first boat I’ve been on where I’ve had a commercial kitchen. On other boats, we had one oven.
How big is the crew?
There are 20 of us. Compared to other boats, it’s not crazy big.
What is the biggest challenge, if any, of cooking on a boat? Or is it just like cooking on a regular kitchen?
The hardest part of cooking on a boat is not being able to run out and get anything. I have to stock up because there’s supposed to be nothing that I can’t provide, so I have to think of a lot of different things before people come on and make sure I have everything. If someone comes on and they’ve got a special diet, I have to make sure that I’ve got gluten- free food, dairy-free, etc. Planning in advance is a huge thing.
In terms of the actual mechanics of cooking on a boat, is it as stable as a regular kitchen? Does it ever get rough?
It’s really, really, rough sometimes. We have an hour or two every other day when we’re sailing that I have to go tie up and lock away everything in the kitchen. It’s incredible that this beautiful boat is able to take it. We go at an unbelievable angle. If I were to turn the tap on at those times, it would come out of the faucet at a 45-degree angle. It’s very strange.
Do you have to cook at those times?
No, it’s not possible. I try to find out when those turns are going to happen so I can plan meals around them. Logistically, it’s sort of a circus.
You’ve seen so much of the world on board the Eos. Is there anyplace you haven’t been yet where you would like to sail?
Japan and the Antarctic.
Does the Eos ever go to cold weather places?
We were in Scandinavia last year and it was cold compared to elsewhere, and then we spent a bit of time in Finland which felt cold. We haven’t been to really cold places yet, but I think it’s being planned.
Do you have cell phone and email access on the boat?
A lot of the time, cell phones don’t work at sea. But e-mail communication is quite good, because my boss likes to work and be in contact. We have satellite phones in case of an emergency. If something happens on board, we’re all medically trained to a certain extent. We can call a line called MedLink, and then a doctor will guide you through a surgical procedure.
Do you ever feel isolated?
Not really. I think if I thought about it I would, but I don’t really think about it. Sometimes, when we we’re in the middle of nowhere between Australia and Southeast Asia, it feels like there’s nothing around and I’ll go to sleep listening to the hum of the engine and the feel of the boat going slowly up and down, up and down. I feel like this tiny little dot in the middle of it all. You begin to realize that even if we abandoned ship, we would probably never be found.
What’s the longest period of time you’ve been on a boat without setting foot on land?
The boat does very long trips. From French Polynesia to Costa Rica is probably one of the longest. That was two weeks, but I was lucky I missed that. The longest I’ve ever done is a week .
Do you get stir crazy?
I don’t enjoy it at all, but other people love it. It’s their favorite time, and they put hammocks up on the back deck and read books. The sunsets are amazing. I love sunrises and sunsets at sea. Otherwise, during the day, I do get a bit stir crazy.
Tell me what a typical day is like for you on the boat.
I have two different schedules, one is when the guests are on board and one when they aren’t. When they are on, I’m up at 5:30 a.m. I have to be in the kitchen by 6 a.m., but my commute is just a minute. It’s pretty busy from then on. I start working on breakfast for the guests; we do a big, lovely buffet with lots of poached fruits, salads, breads, muffins, homemade yogurts and granolas. They start coming up about 8 a.m., and there’s a little breakfast rush. It’s one of my favorite times of the day, from 8 until 10 a.m. It’s kind of like being in a little café. A lot of breakfasts are made to order, and I like that stint. At the same time, my kitchen is helping me and getting ready for the crew to have a little tea break. They have their own snacks, which vary from muffins, scones, or cooked breakfast, and that’s at 10:00 a.m. The crew then has lunch at 12:00 p.m., that’s 20 people. We feed them really well and do a big buffet that’s quite healthy and substantial. After that, I get ready for my guest lunch which is usually about 1:30 or 2 p.m. After the guest lunch, I try and take a break for an hour or two and get back in the kitchen by 4 p.m. at the latest to prep for dinner. We’ll do a canapé sort of thing, a cocktail hour before dinner, and then serve the guests around 8-8:30 or 9 p.m. By 10:30, we’re closing up and sleeping, and then we do it all over again the next day.
Those periods never last that long, and I actually really enjoy them. I love being intensely busy and cooking all day. I have music going all the time, my sous chef and I will alternate iPods and keep our heads down. I forget about everything, because I don’t do much else besides cook and take breaks. That’s only for a week at a time, though. When [DVF and Diller are] not on board, it varies. We have crew meetings at 8 a.m., and we all eat breakfast together, do maintenance, ordering. I’ll make ice cream, frozen yogurts, sorbets, things like that, and then we move to the next place and I’ll visit markets. It’s nice to have those two different schedules.
You’ve shopped at markets all around the world. Are there any universal fruits or vegetables you’ve seen?
Pretty much anywhere you go, there are bananas, and the one thing I’ve never not seen in a market are tomatoes. Everywhere—granted I haven’t been to many cold places—but everywhere I’ve gone, I’ll see tomatoes. All different kinds, but beefsteak tomatoes would be the most common ones. They’re so beautiful and grown in the sun, so they’re very sweet.
What do you say when people tell you that you have the best job in the world?
I wouldn’t know what the best job in the world is, but this is amazing for me! I’m really, really, lucky, and the crew is such a happy bunch of people. All of us are around the same age group, we’re all interested in the same things, and we get to travel around the world together, and experience the most amazing things. We’re climbing mountains, deep-sea diving, and we get to do that and get paid at the same time. So it’s pretty incredible. When I was looking for a job, I knew that I wanted to travel and I wanted to cook. Here, I get to cook a lot of different things, try food all over the world, and get to see the most fantastic places.