Gambit spoke to chef Dan O'Keefe before he left to cook at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. O'Keefe has returned to New Orleans, and here is his account of working at the South Pole.
I received an email from one of those third-party websites that is impossible to shake from in-boxes and spam folders. “SOUS CHEF-SOUTH POLE,” it blared.
Usually, these type of emails are generated by some half-baked amateur algorithm that recommends jobs like “Cooks County Corrections Officer.” … But this one must have been experiencing high accuracy that day, so I took the bait. And 250 pages of faxed history and countless pokes and prods by physicians later, I found myself aboard a gutted C-17 jumbo jet, dressed in a parka heading south. Way south.
My initial destination was to be McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica. It’s one of the more temperate locales, with temperatures rocketing to 20 degrees at the height of austral summer. I had a nice 10-hour shift at “night” with a crew of talented and eager kids whose primary task was to feed the frozen masses. It was a dream job with state-of-the-art equipment. The kids and I were working hard, and were getting positive feedback from our “midrats.” I had it made, and it looked like I’d be coasting into March, when I was called into the office one morning.
The culinary director was a short, officious corporate wall-jumper; a former TGI-Friday’s supply-chain guru who hadn’t seen the business-end of a saute pan in years.
“Hearing good things, Danno. Howdja’ like to go to the Pole?” he asked.
Now, to those familiar with Antarctica, this is a high honor — Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It is brand-new, small and full of the government’s top scientists studying quanta particles which, at the South Pole, are unfettered by objects such as living creatures or life forms of any kind. I was supposed to have fallen to the ground and begun speaking in tongues right after my seizures of glee subsided. But instead, I asked, “Am I in some sort of trouble?” And the man laughed, as Amundsen Scott is indeed high honor.
The base itself was state-of-the-art, and the kitchen, my second home, was home to faulty wiring and dead or dying equipment. I had been promoted to “Dinner Sous Chef,” responsible for feeding bottomless-pit-stomached firemen,
three vegetarians and two twitchy vegans — 130 people in all, armed with my experience and my CIA cookbook, blessedly metric and the first item I pack when leaving the state.
Their supply chain was constructed from paper mache and run by antiquated software, leaving me to order by the seat of my pants while translating metric to human measurements. That said, it’s safe to say 80 kilos of deeply frozen inside round beef weighs as much at the South Pole as it does in Louisiana.
I was afforded a single body: Hunter, my ersatz child and production cook, who was able to perform like a marathon runner for 60 hours a week on almost no sleep. He had been working saute for a year or two in country club settings, so he was used to demanding neurotics in a high-volume kitchen. So we pulled it off day after day, making silk out of sows’ ears.
We had a bold menu with ethnic flair. It looked great on paper. In fact, anyone looking at it, even offshore roughnecks, who are fed gourmet meals 24/7, would have been envious. However, the menu was designed behind a desk in a Denver suburb. And while Denver can get downright chilly, the desk jockey did not take the following hurdles into account:
• The mean temperature at the height of austral summer is minus 10 at peak sun position, which lasts about 20 minutes at the Pole. Then winter starts encroaching, canceling flights in-and-out of my frozen home. Salads were a treat. Mayonnaise was made by hand.
• Food storage space was limited, outside
and in a perpetual state of deep 40-degrees-below freeze.
• Our supply chain was fed by an annual cargo ship at McMurdo for the next year. Garbage was hauled out on the same vessel, making the menus printed but often impossible to execute.
All these things meant a menu in a constant state of flux, which gave me the opportunity to introduce New Orleans’ cuisine. I did this every week, and the scientists didn’t know what hit them. The firemen came back for thirds and fourths, and I used the recipes passed down to me from every generous y’at met in my early years in New Orleans. Thank you St. Bernard, too.
Now, an inside-round is a hunk of meat that is impossible to eat if not sliced paper-thin or cooked for 10 hours at 190 degrees, sealed-up like the tomb of Amenhotep III. Once a month, we had debris. Tons of it, and it all went. Shrimp etouffee, Creole-style anything, and red beans in dirty stock, vegetarian and, well, normal bases all became weekly “specials.”
I did have an issue at first. I don’t think vegan. Nor do I think gluten- nor starch-free, but I had to at the Pole. Making a vegan entree is like cooking with no arms — or butter. Had it not been for my own beer and wine purchases for vegan entrees, I feared the vegans might have had to live on unseasoned Seitan cooked in stock made from things that don’t cast their own shadow, or other such impossible restrictions. No cheese, no bases from any
animal parts or byproduct, not even Worcestershire sauce, as it contains fish. It was a smoke-and-mirror show, but I adhered to their demands wherever possible.
Like I’d mentioned, we had a walk-out freezer at the Pole. Upon arrival, the temperature was -50, and all our side dishes, primarily vegetables, came encased in ice crystals. Conversations like these went on in the frigid howling air:
Hunter: THIS HAS CAULIFLOWER IN IT. IS THAT OK?
Me: NO. PLEASE .... KEEP... DIGGING. I REMEMBER SEEING IT BEFORE THE LAST STORM.
Hunter: CHEF, I THINK DAY SHIFT USED IT.
Me: OK. START LOOKING FOR BROCCOLI! I CAN’T FEEL MY HANDS. I’M GOING IN! GOOD LUCK!
And so on.
Digging out vegetables, the driving force behind every meal: Is the spreadsheet right? Does the item exist somewhere “out there”? And will I ever be able to have children again?
Putting out gourmet meals, no matter the environment, is doable. There is no excuse for a bad meal. But at the South Pole, restrictions do apply.
Dan O'Keefe now works at BMC.