Understanding the Role of a Chief Cook at Sea

20 July 2023

Role and Responsibilities of a Chief Cook on a Merchant Ship

Behind every vibrant and high-spirited crew on a merchant vessel lies the artistry and diligence of a Chief Cook. Not only do they stir the pots and pans to produce delicious meals but their role transcends the boundaries of the galley. The heart of the ship, the Chief Cook, is instrumental in maintaining the crew's health and morale. Navigating through their myriad of responsibilities, understanding their role and importance on a ship, and spotlighting the potential growth opportunities for those aspiring to wear the Chief Cook's apron will be the essence of this deep dive into the role of a Chief Cook on a merchant ship.

Key Duties of a Chief Cook

Just as a captain navigates a ship, a Chief Cook charts the course of the galley. From procuring the best ingredients to delivering exquisite, palate-satiating meals, the Chief Cook is the soul of a ship's culinary experience. Let's uncover the key responsibilities shouldered by a Chief Cook on a merchant ship:

Meal Planning & Preparation

Creating a diverse menu to satiate the tastebuds of a multi-cultural crew requires the finesse and creativity of a seasoned chef. The Chief Cook's day typically begins before sunrise as they start to whip up a hearty breakfast for the crew. Once the breakfast service is completed, the galley gets busy again preparing lunch. In most cases, the Chief Cook gets a brief respite after lunch before heading back to the galley for dinner preparations.

While planning meals, the Chief Cook ensures they are not only delightful but also nutritious and mindful of the crew's diverse dietary needs. This balance of taste and nutrition is especially important in the maritime industry, where maintaining the crew's health is paramount. The Chief Cook pays special attention to serving meals that respect cultural backgrounds and dietary restrictions of crew members, ensuring everyone feels at home, no matter how far they are from their native land.

Overseeing the Galley

Think of the galley as a small, bustling city, and the Chief Cook, its mayor. From maintaining the cleanliness of the galley to overseeing the proper storage of food, the Chief Cook ensures that the galley runs like a well-oiled machine. Maintaining the kitchen equipment, ensuring food safety, and adhering to sanitation regulations are part of this responsibility. A clean, organised, and efficient galley is a testimony to a Chief Cook's meticulous management skills.

Managing Provisions

Every meal served on a ship is a result of thoughtful planning and diligent provision management. Working in collaboration with the Chief Officer, the Chief Cook places orders for provisions considering the length of the voyage, the crew's preferences, and the need to minimise wastage. By optimally managing provisions, the Chief Cook ensures that the crew always has a variety of meals to enjoy, even on long voyages.

Supervising Staff

The responsibility of a Chief Cook goes beyond just cooking; it involves supervising the galley staff as well. From delegating tasks to the messmen to ensuring cleanliness and order in the messrooms, smoking rooms, and common areas, the Chief Cook's role expands to that of a team manager. Also, they often serve meals to senior officers' cabins, ensuring high-level hospitality and catering standards.

A Chief Cook is entrusted with a broad array of responsibilities, each contributing to the smooth operation of the ship and the well-being of its crew. As you sail through this article, we will delve deeper into the career path, required certifications, and other facets of a Chief Cook's role at sea.

Required Certifications, Training & Sea Time for Promotion

Becoming a Chief Cook on a merchant ship is often the culmination of a journey that begins with a humble start as a messman. Over a period of roughly three years, a messman typically transitions from serving meals and maintaining cleanliness to assuming more cooking-related responsibilities under the mentorship of the Chief Cook. This progressive experience and skill-building are an invaluable part of the training required to become a Chief Cook.

While a Certificate of Competency isn't a requirement for becoming a Chief Cook on a cargo ship, companies or specific flag states may require additional certifications related to food handling and preparation, such as food safety and hygiene training. These certifications demonstrate a commitment to ensuring the highest standards of food safety in the galley, a crucial aspect of the role.

Alongside these certifications, sea time, or time spent working onboard a ship, is often a requirement for promotion. A seafarer would typically need to serve as an assistant cook before advancing to the role of Chief Cook. The length of this tenure can vary depending on the ship's staffing structure and the seafarer's individual competence and skills.

Career Path & Professional Development Opportunities

While the position of a Chief Cook on a merchant ship might initially seem like a 'cul-de-sac' in the culinary career path, it actually presents a wealth of opportunities. The skill set and experience acquired on board a ship can translate into several other career avenues in different sectors of the maritime industry and even ashore.

For instance, transitioning into the cruise or yachting industries can open doors to positions like Crew Cook or even Chef. In these roles, the cooking skills are comparable but the overall work environment and clientele can be significantly different. Crew cooks on luxury yachts, for example, often prepare meals for both the crew and high-profile passengers, requiring an ability to cater to a wider range of preferences and dietary requirements.

Apart from these marine-based opportunities, a Chief Cook can leverage their skills and experience to secure employment in catering and kitchens ashore. Whether it is a restaurant, a hotel, or a catering service, the demand for talented cooks is always high. With their unique experience of cooking for multicultural crews on board a ship, Chief Cooks can bring a diverse culinary perspective to these roles.

Daily Physical & Mental Challenges

The role of a Chief Cook is not all smooth sailing. It comes bundled with a host of physical and mental challenges. The galley is typically a hot, bustling environment, and managing it efficiently requires both physical stamina and mental agility. The responsibility of keeping track of the food supplies, planning meals, and ensuring the crew's satisfaction can often be mentally taxing.

Furthermore, accommodating everyone's taste preferences can be a formidable challenge, especially when cooking for a multicultural crew. There might be instances where a dish is not as well-received as expected, but these are opportunities for learning and growth.

Respecting the crew's dietary restrictions is another crucial aspect of the job. This responsibility is especially significant on a ship, where medical help might be limited. Even a single allergic reaction can be hazardous, and it is the Chief Cook's duty to prevent such situations.

Leadership & Team Management

Stepping into the shoes of a Chief Cook also involves embracing leadership and team management roles. It's not just about serving good food; a Chief Cook is expected to manage the crew's expectations consistently and deliver quality results.

Typically, the Chief Cook reports to the Chief Officer and manages the galley staff. This involves orchestrating the galley's smooth operation, which can sometimes be a high-pressure environment. Besides, coordinating the messmen in tasks related to cleaning the accommodation, serving food to senior officers' cabins, and taking care of the messrooms, smoking rooms, and all common areas is a part of their role.

Furthermore, mentoring a messman into a competent cook can also be one of the responsibilities of a Chief Cook. This task requires excellent interpersonal skills and patience, along with the ability to impart knowledge effectively.

Role-Specific Risks, Liabilities & Emergency Responsibilities

Like any seafaring role, the job of a Chief Cook comes with its own set of risks and liabilities. Working in the galley can present potential hazards from hot surfaces, sharp implements, and slippery floors. Consequently, maintaining an impeccable safety record and adhering to the regulations around food safety and kitchen hygiene is an indispensable part of the Chief Cook's duties.

In the event of an emergency, the Chief Cook has specific roles to play. For example, they may be responsible for bringing the first aid kit or the stretcher to the muster station. Understanding and executing these emergency responsibilities effectively can make a significant difference in critical situations.

Demand & Supply Trend in the Job Market

Although there is a general shortage of seafarers, the job market for Chief Cooks is usually well-balanced. The demand for Chief Cooks is perennial, given their unique skill set that is markedly different from a conventional cook's role ashore. This unique skill set and the demanding nature of the job ensure that Chief Cooks are well compensated for their work.

Furthermore, while the concept of catering onboard ships has been explored, it appears that most crews prefer a dedicated cook. This preference further underscores the importance and demand for skilled Chief Cooks in the maritime industry.

Note: For more detailed analysis of the job market trends for seafarers in the EU, do read our article, Seafarer Careers - EMSA Report.

Average Salary, Work-Life Balance, and Shore Leaves

The salary and working conditions for a Chief Cook can vary significantly based on the ship type, company, and contractual arrangements. On coastal vessels and offshore support vessels, the rotation could be 2 months on and 2 months off. Conversely, deep-sea bulk carriers may require 9-month contracts. The salaries typically start from around $2000 per month and can reach up to $5000 or even more on specific vessels. The compensation is indicative of the challenging nature of the job and the unique skills required to perform it.

The work-life balance for a Chief Cook is a crucial aspect that shapes their experience on board. It involves juggling long hours in the galley, rest periods, and occasionally, shore leaves when the ship is docked at a port. Chief Cooks are expected to manage their time effectively to maintain this balance and perform their duties diligently.

Note: For a deeper dive into maritime salaries, you might find our article on Seafarer Salaries useful.

Variations in Duties per Ship Type/Industry

The role of a Chief Cook can vary slightly based on the type of ship and the shipping company. For instance, on cruise ships, a ship's cook typically cooks for the crew, not the passengers. Their main responsibility is to cater to the crew's dietary needs and preferences.

On the other hand, on yachts, the cook may be responsible for both crew and passenger meals, adding an additional layer of responsibility. The diversity in the passengers' dietary preferences and the upscale expectations can sometimes pose unique challenges.

It's important to note that the salary structure in these sectors can also range dramatically. This is often dependent on the ship's size, the number of crew members, and the kind of cuisine prepared on board.

Liveseas' Role

At Liveseas, we offer a comprehensive platform for Chief Cooks to explore opportunities with top employers in the maritime industry. With private profiles, users can control who views their information, thereby maintaining their privacy while optimising career opportunities.

Whether you're a Chief Cook on a merchant vessel or a Ships Cook on a luxury cruise, keeping an active profile on Liveseas can significantly enhance your visibility among potential employers. Liveseas is a seafarer-first platform, ensuring that your needs and career goals are always our priority.


The role of a Chief Cook on a merchant ship goes beyond just cooking. It requires a blend of culinary expertise, leadership skills, and meticulous management. Navigating through the challenges may be demanding, but the role can open doors to numerous opportunities in the maritime industry and beyond. At the end of the day, the ability to prepare delicious and nutritious meals while at sea is a unique and rewarding skill, offering a distinctive seafaring career path.

Note: If you're interested in exploring other roles and responsibilities in the maritime industry, check out our comprehensive guide on Joining the Merchant Navy.