We love hearing about the far flung locales Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts grads end up in (Honolulu, France, New Zealand to name a few), but none have traveled as far – or to a more unexpected location – than Rebekah Osgood. The Pastry Arts grad (Cohort April 2011) is cooking at the end of the earth: McMurdo Station, Antarctica. She tells us how stepping foot on Antarctica proved her fourth grade teacher wrong, how many times she applied before being accepted as a production cook, what daily life is like, and about her favorite Antarctic experiences.
Escoffier: How did you end up in Antarctica? Was it something you always dreamed about?
Osgood: Well, it’s a little ironic. When I was in the fourth grade one of my life goals was to set foot on all seven continents. I remember my teacher being a little skeptical and saying something like, “People don’t go to Antarctica.” But here I am, sitting at the coffee house in Antarctica writing an email about it! I actually first heard about the opportunity from a Pastry Arts classmate. Since going to Antarctica had been on my list for such a long time, I jumped on the opportunity. I started applying right when I graduated. I applied eight times over a two-year span. I heard it was hard to get noticed and you probably wouldn’t get the job the first time you applied, so I kept at it. Then in November of 2012, I got the phone call. Within a month I had completed the medical evaluation and I was on my way down!
Escoffier: So what is it like living at McMurdo station?
Osgood: Right now it is four degrees; yesterday it was negative 20. The weather changes very rapidly and the wind is almost always blowing and blows right through you usually. They issue us a big red parka just for that reason. The living quarters are a lot like college dorms. Outside of your dorm room, each building has a lounge where you can watch TV, play games, or just relax. There are two bars and a coffee house, a craft room, three gyms (one of which has a climbing wall that I enjoy) and a chapel. There is also Skua Central, which is like a second-hand store. Outside there are several hiking and skiing trails. You might think of a flat white expanse, but McMurdo is actually on an island (with the southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus) so there is some beautiful mountain scenery. McMurdo actually feels like a sprawling city while you are walking among some of the more spread out buildings. There is the central building, which houses the galley and several other key offices, nine dorm buildings, dozens of work center buildings (everything from IT to metal fabrication), a medic, firehouse, and warehouses. The people down here are a unique breed. For the support staff I like to say there is a “natural selection” for people to even want to come down. There are a lot of adventurous, experience-the-world kinds of people. If you ask around you can pretty much find someone who has been anywhere. People have a wide variety of skills down here – everything a miniature modern city would need, it’s amazing!
Escoffier: Tell us about your role in the kitchen.
Osgood: I am working on the “midrat” crew (short for midnight rations). There are only three of us compared to the daytime staff of nearly twenty! I am a production cook, so I take the fresh produce the prep cook has already processed (when there are freshies, which are often intermittent) and help the sous chef prepare lunch and dinner for the other night shift workers. Many of my fellow cooks work down here in the winter and somewhere else cool during the summer, especially Alaska. On the PM crew, there were four of us cooking dinner for the entire station population (at our highest we hit 990 people). We all got along great and had a variety of backgrounds – a fish monger with very classical training, a cook from a James Beard awarded restaurant who has lived on all seven continents, someone who cooked at the China Olympics, and someone who staged in New Zealand.
Escoffier: How does your location affect the products you cook with?
Osgood: Almost all of our food (proteins, frozen products, and dried goods) comes from a warehouse that is kept at about negative 20 degrees year round. Maybe twice a month (if the weather cooperates) during the four months of summer we get a fresh food delivery from Christchurch, New Zealand. Usually this is used for salads, as it seems like such a shame to cook the little raw food we get. On this delivery there may also be some fresh cheese or cream, both of which we look forward to. All of our other cheeses have been frozen, which has a negative impact on their texture. All of our milk comes from powdered milk, which some of the population down here find that to be intolerable – it works out well for cooking, but I guess it’s not so good in coffee. We have other dehydrated products, like mushrooms, and we supplement our frozen food with canned food (mostly tomato products and fruit). Once a year a resupply vessel comes and delivers all of the food for the next year. According to some rough estimates the station could survive for a couple of years on the food we have stockpiled.
Escoffier: What is the group’s favorite meal?
Osgood: Everybody loves pizza! There is also cookie day once a week that is a common highlight. People can be very choosy about their food and that is hard when you are down here because you don’t have any other option – it’s the galley food or it’s nothing at all. But it seems like most people can choose to be happy. I’ve heard it said that we present four thousand calories at every meal (I’m not sure how that is calculated), but that means that everyone, including those with allergies and dietary restrictions, can find something they would like to eat. And if you can’t find anything you can always fall back on Frosty Boy – our soft serve ice cream machine, who might be the most popular person on station!
Escoffier: Can you share a favorite Antarctic experience with us?
Osgood: Oh man, how can I pick? Right from day one, you fly down on a military airplane in cargo seats wearing this big thick red parka and you step off the plane into a world of ice! It’s very surreal. Some favorites: seeing Discovery Hut, built by British Explorer Scott and his men; seeing an Emperor Penguin molting in his natural environment; snow camping on the Ice Shelf! So much of it down here is so unique to Antarctica, it’s amazing and a wonder to get to experience. 24-hour sunlight and 24-hour darkness are also one of the highlights to life so far south. We also have a “family table” during the winter. Anyone is invited to sit down and join the bigger group; it is fun to see how people ebb and flow and how much we already feel like family in this isolated environment.
Escoffier: Anything else you want to share with us?
Osgood: I love how cooking and going to the right school, Escoffier, can take you anywhere in the world. After I found out I was gluten intolerant I felt like school was going to just be a fun adventure, but that I would never really work in a bakery. Now that I am working in a high volume kitchen I find there are some tasks where my attention to detail from baking comes in very handy. When I worked in the bakery at McMurdo last summer, I would recall days in the kitchen with my Chef Instructors very regularly. [My job] is amazing! Even after the worst day of work all you have to do is step outside and remember that you are in Antarctica for the day to turn around.