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The Only Heat in Antarctica
career centerthe only heat in antarctica
March 2003
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 to come.

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 midnight rations).

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 changing experience.

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 belong.

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 gold.

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 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 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 L Irvin

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