Crossing the Atlantic in a small sailboat is an exercise in asceticism, a test of what the human psyche can do without. Hot showers, dry socks and nights of uninterrupted sleep are just the beginning. But even ascetics have to eat. Food fuels the sailors just as wind fuels the sails. The trouble is, food also takes up valuable space; adds deadweight that slows the boat; and unless it is frozen, which is impracticable, or dehydrated or canned will, in time, spoil. A serious sailor victualing his vessel for an ocean passage asks three questions: Is it small? Is it light? Will it keep?
Jacky Ruette, 47, is a serious sailor, no doubt about that. On May 30 he completed a 26-day voyage from New York Harbor to Le Havre, France, in a 37-foot C & C Landfall sloop with a crew of three. However, Ruette is also a Frenchman; therefore, he is serious about food. He is a co-owner of two successful New York City restaurants, La Petite Marmite and the newer, very chic Prunelle.
When Ruette goes sailing, whether it is a weekend cruise across Long Island Sound or a monthlong voyage across the Atlantic, his first requirement of his food is that it be good.
"Food is the No. 1 priority in life," says Ruette. "You don't have to live to eat, but you do have to eat to live. So, if you have to eat, why not eat well?"
Indeed, but easier said than done on a two-burner propane stove in a galley that is apt to abandon the vertical without warning. Nevertheless, when Ruette and his friends are wet, cold, tired and, probably, discouraged, they always have dinner to look forward to—boeuf bourguignon, say, or navarin d'agneau printanier or foie de veau à la moutarde.
Ruette's secret is that he does all his cooking ashore in Prunelle's kitchen. Then he vacuum-seals the freshly cooked food in two-portion-sized heavy plastic bags, which, when airtight and refrigerated, will keep anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on their contents. "Bacteria are the enemy," Ruette says. Aboard Grande Passion (the boat was named by Ruette's wife, Josèe), the packaged meals are stowed beneath the floorboards in the bow of the boat, where the North Atlantic keeps them cooled to a steady 40° to 45°.
At the appointed hour Ruette pops two packages into a pressure cooker containing an inch of sea water and seals the lid in place. Minutes later, voilà! Dinner is served—accompanied by a 1983 Bordeaux, 50 gallons of which have been stored in plastic containers. Dessert may be an almond cake called pain de genes.
This kind of vacuum packaging of perishable food is relatively new in the U.S., but it has been used by chefs in France for about a decade. Ruette first put the process to use in 1979 when he made his initial Atlantic crossing. That time he had an even smaller boat, with a crew of one, Gerard Butruille, then the maitre d' at La Petite Marmite.
"Two months before departure I was having a conversation with a friend who sells me cheeses," says Ruette. "We were chatting about life and business, and I asked him how I could preserve cheese for 30 to 40 days. I am from Normandy. I love cheese."
The friend said that cheese would keep when sealed in airtight packages and refrigerated. "I thought," says Ruette, "if it works for cheese, it should work for food also."
That first crossing, which took 31 days instead of the planned 21, was a classic—two major storms, force-11 winds, 35-foot waves, gear failures of every sort. Ruette and Butruille were exhausted most of the way and fearful for their lives the rest. But through it all, they ate well.
This time, Ruette had four mouths to feed on the way over and a menu that included 25 different main courses—most of them hearty dishes typical of France's traditional bourgeois cuisine. "The sauces of bourgeois cooking help make the packages airtight," he says. Nonetheless, Ruette shows a visitor a packet of tiny haricots verts that look so bright green and fresh they could pass inspection even in Prunelle's decidedly modern French kitchen.
In August Ruette will make the return trip, Le Havre to New York, alone. "I have sailed all my life," he said a few days before his departure. "I love the sea. What bigger dream for a sailor than to cross an ocean?"
Ruette works off some calories on the deck of his 37-foot Grande Passion.