Speak pipe


Cooking at the End of the World

A Quest to Reproduce a Top Chef's Recipes at the South Pole



March 15, 2008; Page W1

Photos: Paella at 90 Below

It was -93 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill factor when I first reported for work five months ago as a sous-chef at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Executive chef James Brown greeted me on the runway with a hug. Summer, the period of 24-hour daylight that lasts from October to February, had just begun.

At the South Pole station during those months, 250 scientists, researchers and assorted staff study topics from global warming to glacial paleontology under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, a U.S. agency that funds scientific research. Our job is to feed them. My day begins at 4:30 a.m., when I pull on my chef uniform and then top it with padded overalls, a layer of various fleeces, and a bulky insulated Pole jacket -- an outfit required to get to the building with the nearest bathroom. I appear at the station's galley at 5 a.m. to begin cooking lunch.

At the Pole, we try to turn mostly frozen and canned products into delicious, nourishing food. I wondered if we could do the same with recipes from the restaurants of a chef I've worked with, Laurent Tourondel. (I'm a chef and free-lance food writer, and worked as a recipe tester for his new cookbook.)

Mr. Tourondel uses seasonal, local products at his "BLT" (Bistro Laurent Tourondel) eateries -- a practice that was impossible for us to replicate at the South Pole. But he is also a fan of rustic cooking, both American and French, much of which evolved through imaginative cooks working with limited supplies during times of hardship. I proposed that I adapt some of his recipes for cooking at the Pole. Mr. Tourondel liked the idea and agreed to provide advice and feedback along the way.

For us in the kitchen, it would mean applying principles of contemporary French-American cooking -- where produce grown within 100 miles of a restaurant is particularly prized today -- to a kitchen 3,000 miles away from the nearest farm.
Cooking at the South Pole presents serious challenges. The 60 or so wintering crew who braved 24 hours of nighttime between March and October without any traffic in or out didn't see a fresh root vegetable or piece of fruit for seven months. By the end of October, weather is just warming up to above -58 degrees, allowing aircraft to arrive with unfrozen produce from New Zealand, known here as "freshies." Although freshies are scheduled to be flown in once a week, weather often interferes.

There is a greenhouse at the station -- at 2,800 cubic feet, a small oasis of loveliness -- that turns out just enough produce for salad two or three times a week. The variety of vegetables and herbs in the greenhouse, which range from fresh eggplant to jalapenos, are all produced hydroponically, using only water and nutrients and no soil.
But for most dishes, the kitchen relies on frozen and canned products. Some of these are housed in a few buildings around the station, such as the geodesic dome built in the mid-1970s that used to serve as the main South Pole station.

Our kitchen is in a new structure we refer to as the Elevated Station, so called because it stands on 36 columns, each 12 feet tall and designed to be jacked up in increments to lift the building another 24 feet, thus ensuring it will not be buried under accumulating snowdrifts in years to come.

Many other products are stored outdoors on elevated snow banks topped with wood planks. 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. Dry beans reach the al dente stage after about 10 hours.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Norwegian Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen calculated a trekker required a good 7,700 calories per day to survive this kind of cold. No big surprise, then, that at the South Pole we serve meals that are heavy on meat and potatoes. During the 2006 winter season, the average individual consumption of beef hit nearly 85 pounds, along with 18 pounds of butter and 24 pounds of French fries.

With these challenges in mind, I created a menu from Mr. Tourondel's cookbook, "New American Bistro Cooking." Mr. Brown, the Pole's executive chef, agreed to the experiment and worked with me to produce it. We enlisted all 10 cooks in the galley, and each of us signed up to oversee one dish.

Every recipe required some substitutions. 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.

One of the most resourceful adaptations was the rendition of Mr. Tourondel's creamed spinach by dinner-production cook Chris Brazelton, an ex-marine with 12 years of kitchen experience. He took the hard spinach bricks stored on the outside deck, wiped the snow off the boxes, and defrosted and dried the greens in the tilt skillet, a large electric pan that holds about 30 gallons and can crank up to 400 degrees very quickly.

He had no heavy cream, so he made a béchamel sauce with the milk we use daily: powdered skim. He added extra butter for consistency and perked it up with a little allspice and cinnamon as well as the called-for nutmeg. For Gruyère, he substituted a New Zealand cheese called Tasty, similar to Monterey Jack, and a local Emmenthal-style cheese. It worked; one carpenter told me he had three helpings.

Others succeeded with the addition of a little fresh produce. Will Watkins, the dinner sous-chef, made the Macaroni With Tomatoes and Spicy Sausage. We had all the ingredients, although our tomatoes are crushed and frozen, and our dried pasta has been frozen so deeply and its texture so altered that it falls apart as soon as it is cooked al dente.

But Mr. Watkins had good quality Italian sausage and was able to harvest some fresh basil and arugula from the greenhouse. "That's what really made the dish," he said. Mr. Tourondel agreed. "I think fresh herbs are one of the most important and underrated ingredients," he said.

Brak komentarzy: