|The Only Heat in Antarctica
centerthe only heat in antarctica
The lunch rush was over and I was prepping for dinner when one
of the dining staff rushed back into the kitchen and asked if
I wanted to see a penguin. Within minutes I had a red down parka
over my chef's whites and was standing outside in Antarctica,
watching a penguin waddle by.
It was one of the many moments I couldn't have dreamed of two
years ago, as I was searching online for investment opportunities.
During that search I clicked on a link for career opportunities
with Fortune 100 companies, mostly out of curiosity. What are
the chances a major corporation would need a chef, I wondered.
The answer that popped up surprised me: Wanted, head chef in
Antarctica. At first I was taken aback. I have been cooking
at multi-outlet resorts and small independent restaurants in
southeast Georgia and northeast Florida for 12 years, climates
very different than the frozen far South. My greatest culinary
influence has been Jacky Burette, CEC at the Amelia Island Plantation
in Florida, who helped me establish a firm foundation on which
to build. With my own strong background in "openings," and with
all of the venues still open and thriving, I was ready for a
new adventure, but was this it? Drawn by the challenges of the
environment and the mystique of the location, I decided to apply
for a job in a kitchen that I had never seen, 10,000 miles from
everything I knew.
The company I now work for is Raytheon Polar Services Company
(RPSC), the prime support contractor to the by the National
Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program. RPSC provides support
for scientific research on the seventh continent.
The hiring process is very extensive. After the initial call
there were several telephone interviews and finally a trip to
RPSC's headquarters in Denver where I learned I was competing
with two other qualified candidates for the same position. Then
the offer came - head chef. I accepted and was on my way through
a rigorous qualification process. The physical qualification
required to work in such harsh working conditions are taken
seriously. After all, this is the coldest, driest, windiest,
most isolated place on the surface of the Earth. And if you
get hurt or become ill on "the Ice," you have to be flown to
New Zealand for treatment.
After the job offer was made, I began making arrangements. My
wife Carol was behind me all of the way, encouraging me even
though it meant leaving her for half a year. I told some of
my friends about my plans and I received very mixed reactions.
Some said, "Why on Earth would you leave sunny Florida to work
in Antarctica? Have you lost your mind?" Others were as excited
as I was, saying, "That's amazing! I had no idea the opportunity
was even available."
My journey began in August with a flight to New Zealand. Mid-flight
my mind started to race. I couldn't sleep and I was overcome
with thoughts of what was to become my home for the next six
months. I was going to one of the harshest places on Earth,
where conditions change instantly. The chance of going for an
afternoon walk in Antarctica and never coming back is very real.
I was scheduled to arrive at a time when the continent was covered
with darkness. In Antarctica there is only one sunrise, and
one sunset. From late October through February there is 24 hours
of sunlight during the austral summer. During the winter months
there is 24 hours of darkness.
From Auckland I flew on to Christchurch, the gateway to Antarctica.
After a few days of orientation and being issued our Emergency
Cold Weather (ECW) gear, we were packed tightly in a C-141 military
flight, all having thoughts of what lay ahead. There was a plane-load
of us, some new people like me and others were veterans of many
seasons on the Ice.
After several hours we descended to the ice runway on the frozen
Ross Sea. The cargo doors opened and dry, frigid air whisked
through the cabin. It was fifty-five degrees below zero as I
stepped foot onto the ice. My breath froze and every bit of
moisture on my body solidified. Welcome to Antarctica!
A shuttle bus took us to McMurdo Station to have a briefing
in the "Galley" - a term carried over from when the U.S. Navy
provided support for the Antarctic Program. Much to my surprise
the facility was a modern establishment recently remodeled with
many of the comforts of a regular production kitchen.
We strive to serve high-quality banquet food here, for a community
whose population can reach 1,200 in the summer, and get as low
as 200 in the winter. We are on a five-week rotational menu,
which is subject to changes as we see fit. The majority of our
proteins are frozen. We offer two meat choices as well as a
vegetarian option every meal, four times daily. Our produce
and fresh dairy are flown in from New Zealand on a weekly basis
during the summer, and not at all during the winter, when IQF
veggies and evaporated dairy products are used instead. We do
offer fresh baked pastries and desserts, as well as homemade
breads from our bakery. Fresh "anything" is definitely at a
premium in Antarctica. "Freshies," as they are known, are always
looked forward to by the cooks and community alike, especially
fruits and vegetables.
There are currently 56 employees on the culinary team, all from
very diverse backgrounds that help make up our food services
staff. There's a retired physics professor, a twenty-something
skibum, and a newspaper columnist, among others. Some have come
just to visit the seventh continent. Others are here to save
a substantial amount of money to pay off debt or travel the
world in the off-season. Whatever the reason, we are a very
tight knit community living and working side-by-side for months
An average day at McMurdo station is as follows. Everyone in
the community works 10 hours per day (2 hours being breaks),
6 days per week. I start at 9 a.m and finish at 7 p.m., working
through lunch and dinner. The others work their respective shift
whether it is breakfast, lunch, dinner or midrats (short for
There is much more to do than one might think. When we are not
working, there are usually planned events by the recreation
department, or field trips -called "boondoggles" - to sites
outside of McMurdo. The activities in town include bowling,
a pottery studio, aerobics, weight lifting, basketball, hiking,
skiing, library, video rentals and several classes to choose
from such as dance, music, knitting, politics. Or you can sign
up for college credit courses over the Internet. If you are
fortunate enough to have time to take one of the field trips,
you might obtain a ride out to a penguin rookery, one of the
local glaciers, or a weekend at sea ice survival school.
I was lucky enough to obtain a trip to the South Pole for one
week to replace an injured person while waiting for their replacement.
McMurdo and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are just over
800 miles apart, but they are worlds apart in many respects.
McMurdo is at sea level; South Pole is at about 10,000 ft. Volcanic
rock and mountains surround McMurdo while South Pole is flat
as far as the eye can see in all directions. McMurdo has wildlife
since it sits next to the ocean, including seals, penguins,
and skua birds. But the South Pole has no wildlife as there
is no food source for animals. While at the South Pole I walked
a couple miles to the end of the runway and found myself looking
back at the work camp there, suddenly tiny. It was the only
thing to see in a plain of flat extending to the horizon, and
suddenly it was clear how small we are in the world, just a
dot in the middle of nothing. At the South Pole it doesn't matter
who you are, what you own or where you came from. It was a life
So was my encounter with the penguin that wandered close to
town. A group of us grabbed our parkas and cameras and headed
down the hill to see our first Antarctic native. We saw the
little black speck waddling towards us. We inched our way closer,
being careful not to startle our new friend. Very strict guidelines
set by the Antarctic Treaty state that you cannot alter an animal's
behavior in its natural environment, so we knew not to get too
close. Then he noticed us. Everyone stood still. The penguin
looked straight at us and started waddling our way. What should
we do? He was coming dangerously close, so we started to back
away. As we all got our pictures and observed this magnificent
creature, we suddenly realized that it wasn't the penguin that
was on display, it was us. Suddenly the tables were turned.
The penguin must have thought, "What are these tall things in
red jackets with flashing eyes? Where did they come from? Are
they edible?" This was one of the weirdest feelings I had ever
had. This must be what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo.
It solidified the fact that I am outside of my element here
in Antarctica, where penguins are curious and humans do not
Antarctica brings out an almost primal instinct inside of you.
It is like living in a medieval village where everyone has a
task to perform in order for the town to function. We cook for
everyone. Someone else fabricates metals to fix machinery. There
are construction workers to build our dwellings, plumbers for
our pipes, people taking care of linens and housekeeping, a
doctor to make sure we are all well and people to take care
of our traveling needs either back to civilization or across
town. Nobody is any better or worse. We all perform a specific
function in order for us to survive. We all appreciate each
other equally. It doesn't matter what kind of car you drive,
or where you buy your clothes, or where your kids go to school.
Instead you ask other simple questions that are normally taken
for granted. Are you warm? Are you dry? Did you get plenty to
eat? Can I help you do anything? Your needs are simple and the
most basic things in your "normal" life suddenly become a priority.
Fresh food, mail, pictures and fresh coffee are all suddenly
If you were ever to consider working in Antarctica for the U.S.
Antarctic Program I would give you these small pieces of advice.
Antarctica is like nothing you have ever seen. It will change
your life in one way or another. Most people find the seventh
continent to be very rewarding. It is as unique as it is beautiful.
It has changed my life, and the way I view many things in it.
Most will never get a chance to experience such beauty. However,
I am glad that I work in the kitchen. It is the warmest, most
humid place on the continent. We all get along in the kitchen,
we don't really have a choice. We work hard and play harder,
while we constantly raise the bar on the quality of food. Is
it a challenge working here? Of course it is. Many have said
that the food is the best it has ever been. This is nice to
know when some of the people who work outside are on 4,500-calorie
diets and still losing weight (no kidding). Antarctica is awesome
in the truest sense. I would recommend it to anyone willing
to go out on a limb, or maybe someone who thinks they have done
it all. I am finishing my contract in late Feb. I can't wait
to come back for another summer. It also turns out I will be
hiring for the next season if anyone is really interested.
For more information on working for the U.S. Antarctic Program,
please visit www.polar.org.
Click on the "U.S. Antarctic Program Participant's Guide" link
to learn more about life at the three U.S. stations. Also, the
National Science Foundation, who funds and manages all operations
for the U.S. Antarctic Program can be found at www.nsf.gov.
Feel free to contact me with other questions at [email protected].
Or [email protected]
It has been a pleasure sharing a global chefs experience with
all of you.
Written By: Delma L Irvin, CCC
Photographs Courtesy: U.S. Antarctic Program & Delma
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