In a freely available article, The Wall Street Journal reveals how chefs cook at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. You might find surprising to find such a post here, but cooking at the South Pole needs lots of innovation and creativity. Let's look at some of the challenges. First, the South Pole Station stands at an elevation of 2,835 meters and temperatures varied between -13.6° C and -82.8° C. Then, all the food for the 250 scientists based there comes by plane and is obviously frozen. And it can take up to two weeks to defrost meat or poultry. Finally, because of the moisture-free air, cooking must be exclusively done with electric equipment, which can take a very long time. But read more...
As you can see above, it's not easy to send supplies to the South Pole Station. They have to travel halfway around the Earth by ship and aircraft. (Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation). Here is a link to a larger version (PDF format, 1 page, 184 KB) of this illustration.
Now, let's come back to the WSJ article. It was written by Michèle Gentille, a chef and free-lance food writer who writes the Harriett's Tomato blog and who is spending the vernal Antarctic season as sous-chef at the Amundsen Scott science station since October 2007.
She might say that cooking there presents difficult challenges. But you can see above some of the pies prepared by the cooking crew for Thanksgiving 2007. It really looks like delicious food to me. (Credit: Michèle Gentille). Here are two links to her Thanksgiving at the South Pole post and to a larger version of the picture above. Also, don't miss the slide show that the WSJ is showing on its website.
In the WSJ article, Gentille describes how defrosting and cooking with electricity devices are serious challenges. "Defrosting is a big part of the job. It takes meat and poultry between nine and 14 full days to thaw in the galley's refrigerated walk-in, while a large can of fruit or vegetables, known as a #10 can, takes seven days to thaw at room temperature. Once the ingredients are defrosted, cooking here can still be a difficult task. The moisture-free air at the station has such potential for fire that all galley equipment must be electric. There is no such thing as sautéing; we cook on an electric surface that takes at least twice as long to heat as open flame. Because water boils at a cooler temperature at this altitude -- about 9,300 feet above sea level -- a pot of soup large enough to feed the lunch crowd can take a good three to four hours to heat up."
With such challenges, it's hard to imagine to eat gourmet food at the South Pole Station. But Gentille worked with French Chef Laurent Tourondel who built the BLT Restaurants from New York. [And please notice that BLT doesn't mean "Bacon, Lettuce and Tomatoes," but "Bistro Laurent Tourondel."] And she imagined to replicate his recipes at the South Pole.
Of course, without almost any fresh produce, it was hard to do, and "every recipe required some substitutions." The article carries several examples. Here is the first one. "For the salad of marinated mushrooms with tomatoes and cilantro, we had no fresh mushrooms, so Dan Von Bank, who handles materials for the galley, used a mixture of dried porcinis and shiitakes and canned buttons as well as dried herbs and pre-ground coriander. Mr. Tourondel expressed his approval. 'Dried mushrooms are very good,' he said, although he noted that ground coriander is very different from fresh cilantro -- 'but if you have to, make do!' he added. Mr. Von Bank had to cook the mixture much longer than indicated in the recipe, partly because the mushrooms were dried, but also because at this altitude acids such as wine and tomatoes don't mellow easily. But the dish proved a success, and our diners relished it."
Congratulations to all the cooks at the South Pole Station!
Finally, for more information about the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, here is a selection of five documents.
- United States Antarctic Program (USAP) web portal
- The NSF Office of Polar Programs page about Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
- Another NSF page about the South Pole Station, from which the illustration above has been extracted
- A special report about science done at the South Pole Station
- The long Wikipedia page about the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Sources: Michèle Gentille, Special to The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2008; and various websites
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