The trend of small-space living is everywhere these days. From “tiny homes” to “micro-lofts,” living small has become something of an art form in itself, something that the yachting world has known since, well, the beginning. Living well in small spaces demands extreme tidiness and the kind of organizational superpowers that could give Marie Kondo a run for her money. This is especially true when it comes to the humble, yet oh-so-vital boat galley!

Space optimization and preparing gourmet cuisine in a tiny galley is a tricky business indeed. Storage is sparse, prep space often lacking, and appliances typically smaller than their land-based counterparts. Throw in rough seas, unusual requests, and no supermarket right down the road, and it’s easy to see the challenge of planning, prepping, and serving up to 60 plates a day in a space smaller than the average closet!

With a flourishing charter industry, there is a real need in the business for talented chefs who are willing to trade in the luxury of a commercial kitchen for the unique challenges of small-space cooking on the water. Matt Proto, a professional yacht chef, is just such a pro who swapped work in restaurant kitchens for a more laid back career as Chef aboard Firefly, a 46-foot charter catamaran based in St. Thomas. 

Learning to cook pizza at Chuck-E-Cheese isn’t what most people imagine as the beginnings of a great chef, but that’s exactly where Matt began his career.

“I never had any intention of becoming a professional chef, but I really liked pizza, so I convinced them to let me work on the line,” he said.

Matt quickly outgrew his pizza-prepping position and learned kitchen skills at assorted restaurants before finally being taught the culinary arts by more seasoned professional chefs.

Matt eventually made his way to the beautiful island of St. Thomas where a friend offered him a chef job aboard a charter boat. His position gave him the freedom to combine his love of diving and cooking, and he’s enjoyed doing both on boats ever since.

“I get to take people diving, often for the first time, and still provide a fine dining experience, but in a more intimate casual atmosphere. Plus I’m also a captain, so I still get to take part in handling the boat, as well as maintenance and repairs, which believe it or not, I really enjoy. I think all that would go away the minute I have to start wearing shoes to work!”

Even with the joys of the barefoot boating life, providing an exceptional guest experience can be tough when chefs are working with limited counter space and minimal storage capacity. Meals that might be a breeze in a standard kitchen suddenly require much more foresight on a yacht. Prepping a holiday turkey, for example, can be difficult when a galley’s oven is only half the size of a standard unit! 

For Chef Matt, the most challenging part of small galley cooking on the water is the lack of refrigeration space, the small ovens, and a stubborn off-shore wind that seems determined to blow out his burners! But he notes that provisioning isn’t too much trouble thanks to grocery stores that are happy to order speciality items and the convenience of the internet for stocking dry goods.

While on charter, Matt relies on a well-stocked galley and constant preparations throughout the day to keep pace with the rigorous dining schedule while on charter. As guests enjoy breakfast on deck, Matt has already finished preparing that night’s desserts. Dinner is ready to go by the time lunch is wrapping up. This rigorous prep schedule allows him to stay on top of things—and keeps him on his toes for sudden changes in itinerary.

Matt enjoys challenging his guests with menus inspired by whatever is fresh at the local markets.

“I try to challenge myself every week, not only to make something new but also to get our guests to try something new that they’ve never had before.” Matt appreciates the opportunity to regularly change things up. “If I had to make the same dishes every week, I probably wouldn’t last very long.” 

Gourmet cooking on charter may be quite the operation, but delivering an amazing experience for guests makes it worthwhile. At the end of each charter, Firefly’s crew members chat with their guests about the highs and lows of the trip, then take a group Polaroid for the catamaran’s guestbook.

“It’s always rewarding to look back and see all of the lives that we’ve had a positive effect on,” said Matt. 

“A lot of people seem to like my food, and that makes me happy. I think I’ve made a lot of mistakes through the years, and I think that’s what has helped me grow the most, and get to a point where I am now able to do things properly, consistently. I think that’s what separates a chef from a cook, having enough experience to draw from to overcome challenges to be able to still create.”