At 29 years old, Shay Van der Kraan, head chef aboard the 178-foot (54.4-meter) Townsend-Downey Shenandoah of Sark, has a resume that touts award-winning restaurants from New Zealand and Australia to the United Kingdom and France. An enthusiastic traveler, he discovered that being a yacht chef was the perfect way to marry his passion for cooking with his wanderlust and love of boats. His yacht jobs have taken him all over the Mediterranean, and farther afield to Thailand, the Seychelles and the Maldives.
“The story of my life and travels is on my body,” Van der Kraan says with a smile.
Replete with body art from neck to hands to feet, he swears that alcohol was never involved. Since his first tattoo at age 15, each design has been thoughtfully conceived and intentional.
“My tats represent places I have traveled to and milestones in my life,” he says.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, where his father (who also has several tattoos) had several restaurants, Van der Kraan grew up around food preparation.
“My dad was the primary cook in our family, and I wanted to emulate him. Our restaurants served typical, family-style Italian fare such as pasta and pizza,” Van der Kraan says. “Nothing fancy, but great comfort food.”
By age 9, Van der Kraan was preparing an eight-course buffet dinner for his family and their friends: “I got out a cookbook and simply followed recipes.”
Van der Kraan’s family moved from Auckland to Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, when he was in high school. It’s where he still keeps his truck and speedboat, but he has not spent much time there since he has been pursuing his career and perfecting his craft.
“I left home at the age of 17, joining the ranks of Kiwi backpackers, and moved to Australia,” he says. He took culinary courses and apprenticed at a well-known restaurant in Brisbane, and then headed to Wales when he was 20. After a couple of years, he returned to New Zealand’s South Island and got a job working for a Michelin-star chef. By age 23, he wanted to have his own business.
“With the financial backing of my mum and her encouragement for me to always do my personal best, I bought a food truck and made everything from scratch,” he says. “I cranked out popular fair food, such as fresh pulled pork sandwiches and brioche donuts. It was fun for a while, but it was also a tremendous amount of work. My sister and I decided to go to England together. She was into horses, and I was looking to work in gourmet restaurants. I did a stint in molecular gastronomy, and while I learned a lot, it is not really my thing.”
He did stretches at restaurants such as Old Downton Lodge in Shropshire, England, and the Timberyard in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“I credit the executive chef at Timberyard for setting an example for me and being a great mentor,” he says. “He was always so calm and cool, never any screaming, no throwing of pots and pans. I wanted to be like him. Everything he made was in the spirit of making the natural flavors of each dish speak for themselves in the best possible way. A beet should taste like a beet.”
Van der Kraan next got a job as a private chef at a villa in the French Alps. Being in the mountains let him enjoy snowboarding along with cooking. It was in France that some guests suggested his skills were well-suited to work on yachts.
In New Zealand, he had always messed around on small boats. He loved to fish and surf, but working on a superyacht had never occurred to him. He landed aboard the 262-foot (80-meter) Nobiskrug Artefact as a sous chef.
“We had full-on summer with the owner, and I learned heaps,” he says, “but a mate who was opening a restaurant in New Zealand asked me to help him out, so I went back home.”
Once that restaurant was rolling, Van der Kraan went back to yachting. This time, he joined the 167-foot (51-meter) Codecasa motoryacht Atlas in Thailand as sous chef. That yacht cruised to the Maldives and Seychelles.
“The head chef aboard, Morgan Lonegrin, was very influential in mentoring me,” Van der Kraan says, “and he encouraged me to look for my own head chef job.”
Van der Kraan found that head chef job aboard Shenandoah of Sark.
“I could not be happier,” he says. “The crew is great. We all help each other. When we are under sail, we all enjoy being on deck. It’s such a thrilling feeling, especially on Shenandoah with her topsails up. She is a very special yacht.”
Perhaps Van der Kraan has a three-masted schooner in mind for his next tattoo.
Q&A with Chef Van der Kraan
What is your wake-up time? I get up at 5:30 when we have guests on board and start preparing so that I have meals under control before we start sailing, and I don’t have to be chopping at an acute angle while heeling over.
Do you have a signature dish? Oh, I have a hundred different favorite dishes on my laptop. I don’t really have just one dish. But because of my father, I really love to make pasta, pizza and focaccia with a sourdough crust.
Do you have a favorite kitchen utensil? I actually have a gold tasting spoon. Spoons go missing a lot, but no one messes with my distinctive gold spoon.
What condiments do you always have with you? I always have my sourdough starter, which is like having a pet. You have to feed it regularly. And I always have my confit garlic oil.
What’s the strangest food request you ever received? When I was working on a luxury barge in France, the guests wanted me to go to a local shop and get them some horse meat. I could never tell my sister, as she is a horse trainer.
If you were not a chef, what would have been your career path? I was very close to going into the navy, but I am happy where I am.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue.