GTPulse: Woman Who Worked As A Deckhand Returns To The Same Ship As The Chef

Lexie Nelson had no culinary experience before working on the Schooner Manitou in Traverse City, now she's the ship's chef.

Living by water has a lot of benefits. People are able to go to the beach more, enjoy the sight and sound of waves and go sailing. But what about living on the water? Imagine living on a ship for five months out of the year, now imagine it’s your job. Lexie Nelson is a chef and she lives where she works this year on the Schooner Manitou in Traverse City, Michigan.

A past interview subject for another article I did suggested Lexie to me as an interesting person to write about and I am thrilled because Lexie embodies the way I think that most people should live their lives. She has been daring with her dreams and direct about going after them. Lexie is originally from outside of Denver, Colorado and was studying to become a math teacher in college before she ever knew the Manitou existed. As her studies went on she slowly started to realize that teaching math wasn’t something she was passionate about.

“Honestly, I started failing classes. At that point I had to be honest with my dad and say, ‘I’m kind of wasting your money.’ That was rough, but my dad is actually the reason I got into this.”

After deciding that she needed a change, Lexie’s father suggested she join the crew at a boat a friend of his had in Traverse City, the Manitou. The woman’s name was Cheyenne and she gladly took Lexie on board as a deckhand. Lexie spent her first season as a deckhand, and returned for a second season as second mate. She was halfway through her season as second mate when the chef on board quit, suddenly. Lexie took on cooking for the remainder of the season, and fell in love with it, so much so that she decided to return to Colorado to attend a culinary program.

“It was a French farm-to-table school, it was a 9 month program and it was exactly what I wanted and needed.”

During her time in school, Lexie was immersed in not just cooking but where food comes from. She was able to work on farms, in grow houses and butcheries.

Although Lexie was inspired by the Schooner Manitou to go to culinary school, she didn’t go in to school knowing that she would return to be the ship’s chef. She lingered in Colorado for a while after school before returning to Michigan for an internship as a chef at the Boathouse Restaurant in Traverse City as well as on Manitou’s Windjammer tours, the longer trips the ship makes. After her internships in Michigan, Lexie returned home again to Colorado.

“I moved to the mountains and I was a sous chef for three years before coming back here again. Here is way better,” Lexie said.

Lexie returned to Michigan and didn’t have a set job yet. She took her boyfriend at the time out on a Windjammer tour. She missed sailing and wanted him to experience it with her. A conversation with the cook helped her get back right where she wanted to be.

“I talked with the cook at the time and she was like, ‘I’m done. I don’t wanna do it. I’m old, I’m tired.’ So I talked with Brett, who’s our head captain and he was here when I first started. He’s known me since the beginning, and so he was like, ‘Don’t mess with me, if you wanna come back the job is yours.’”

So Lexie returned to the place where it all began, her Manitou muse.

“That was last year and it’s been a very humbling experience for me. This is why I went to culinary school.”

A perception of chefs is that they work in high paced, upscale places and that the end game is always to own their own restaurant, but that’s not a sentiment that Lexie shares.

“I never wanted that. I just cook good food for good people on a boat.”

Good food is an understatement. I went to have breakfast with Lexie, Manitou guests and the crew this past Saturday and it was one of the most memorable breakfast experiences I have had. The dining room is downstairs and it is cozy. I was surprised to learn that she can serve up to 24 guests in the dining space. It was warm from the wood burning stove, and on this particular morning smelled like cedar and cinnamon.

Lexie wakes up at 4:30 am on a workday. She fires up the stove at 5:00 am and starts percolating the coffee. She serves a soft breakfast for guests on the main deck while preparing the full breakfast below in the kitchen. After breakfast Lexie is responsible for feeding the crew lunch and then making dinner as well. She meticulously plans out meals for the week and grocery shops all the items she needs on her own.

Breakfast is banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage and chopped fruit. For me it was definitely an instance where I had to revel in the fact that eating this wonderful food is considered work, lucky me, and lucky you if you ever get a chance to experience the Manitou and Lexie’s cooking. Lexie sends me off with a lemon poppy seed muffin, and climb out of the dining room to head home.

I mentioned earlier that Lexie lives the way I wished more people would. It takes a lot of guts to realize a dream and then to take steps to execute it, no matter what that looks like, or how intimidating it may be. Lexie heads to Key West to work on a crew this Fall during Manitou’s off season.

Categories: GTPulse