Life in the kitchen is never easy—being a chef is a profession that involves an incredible amount of precision, creativity, and the ability to keep your cool in this uniquely stressful environment, even in the best of conditions. In a place like Antarctica's Concordia Station, one of the most isolated research facilities in the world, where day and night can last months on end and temperatures generally hover between -30 and -60 Celsius, the already stressful task of being a chef begins to sound downright hellish.
This however, is not the opinion of Luca Ficara, who has been serving as the base's resident chef since November.
When I Skyped with Ficara last week, he was well into the first full week of perpetual darkness at the base, but despite the fact that he wouldn't be seeing the sun for another three months, he was all smiles and jokes. Ficara must operate in an environment which is a far cry from "the best of conditions," yet despite all the hardships his job description entails, it's the small things that he misses most: "It's been three months since I've had a orange," he told me with a melancholy that only three months without a orange can warrant.
Ficara, affectionately referred to as "the David Copperfield of the kitchen" by his crewmates, hails from Sicily, where he spent five years training as a chef in the IPSSAR Hospitality School in Catania, Italy. At 30, Ficara has spent years working in kitchens in Australia, England, and Spain, although working in a kitchen on the white continent was always little more than a dream.
"To be honest, [going to Antarctica] was not in my plan," said Ficara, laughing. "It was like a lottery—you just buy a scratch card, and if you're lucky, you're going to win. You always dream about it, but you never think you will be the winner."
Each year, the Italian National Program for Antarctic Research (which maintains the base along with the French Polar Institute Paul Emile Victor) holds a lottery to determine who will be spending the next year as the resident chef at Concordia. This lottery system has won the station something of a reputation for its food, which received a nod in the Lonely Planet as a place "considered by many to enjoy Antarctica's best cuisine, with fine wines and seven-course lunches on Sundays."
While Ficara didn't really expect to end up in the Concordia Kitchen, he turned out to be the perfect fit for the job given his diverse culinary repertoire. The chefs chosen by the PNRA must demonstrate not only proficiency as cooks, but also a robust knowledge of international culinary practices so that they can cater to the tastes of the 13-person Concordia winter crew, who hail from England, Switzerland, France, and Italy.
The winter-over crew at Concordia is living in near total isolation, their contact with the outside world limited to digital interactions during the eight months of the year when Antarctica is so cold that jet fuel turns to gel, prohibiting any visitors from reaching the base. In these isolated conditions, food takes on a special importance for everyone at the base. While the crew may be landlocked until November, Ficara nonetheless manages to allow his colleagues to return to their homes on a nightly basis, riding on aromas of Yorkshire pudding, foie gras, or chicken parmigiana.
In addition to trying to cater to the local tastes of the various crew members, Ficara also arranges for themed nights each Saturday, occasions for which he prepares some of his most lavish meals.
"You must understand that every day is the same. So to give some effect of the end of the week we try to make special events," said Ficara. "For example, for the French crew, I tried to make a very fancy French meal. I gave somebody a job as a sommelier and explained how to serve the food. We've done a few nights like this—very stylish."
Despite the festive atmosphere that is brought about by Ficara's elaborate feasts each week at the base, it wouldn't be much of a party without another crucial ingredient: alcohol. The crew keeps a decent variety of spirits on site, but only have access to them on Saturday evenings during which they eat, drink, and be merry to celebrate the end of another week at the base. In addition to downloading recipes for cocktails to experiment with over dinner, the crew is particularly fond of wine, the lifeblood of its Italian and French crew members.
"It's not like we have a wine bar, but we have a lot of wine—unfortunately, we just have French wine," said Ficara with a laugh. "I think the best wine for everybody is the wine from where you're born, but a glass of wine is always a pleasure [even if it's French]."
During the summer months (November to February), the Concordia population grows to around 75 people, which often requires the chef to take on some additional help in the kitchen. During the eight months where there are only a dozen other crew members on site, Ficara must crank out three meals a day on his own. A daunting task, but Ficara is not always without help—he keeps the kitchen door open, always ready to offer cooking lessons to his crewmates.
"Most of the time I'm alone in the kitchen, but sometimes I like to give cooking lessons to the crew, so I'll make some muffins with Beth [Concordia's English doctor] or some pizza with Mario [Concordia's Italian Mission Commander]," Ficara told me. In addition to instructing the crew on how to cook, Luca also entertains them with stories about how he came to learn about the dish they are preparing. "It's nice when we have meals because we share the experience of traveling or we share the ingredients we'd never have known. Each plate has some history from me, so I always explain how I know how to prepare something."
The arrival of summer brings with it not only perpetual sunlight and dozens of new crew members, but also shipments of fresh food, a luxury for Ficara who has been working with frozen and dehydrated ingredients since March. Yet despite how exciting it is for the crew to see food that isn't freeze-dried, the occasion is not marked with a feast.
"Maybe you'd be surprised, but when we receive fresh vegetables, the most amazing way to eat them is in the natural way, to just take a tomato and bite into it," said Ficara, eliciting groans from his colleagues as they envision just how nice it will be to see fresh fruits and vegetables again in November.
The fresh foods go on an incredible journey to make it to the base, with ingredients from France, Italy, and Australia arriving to the continent on a boat and then proceeding to make a ten-day, 1,200-kilometer trip over land to Concordia. Ficara must plan his meals months in advance, taking into account both culinary variety as well as a strict budget for food at the base, and even then the nature of the delivery system for his inventory means that the arrival of the food is never a guarantee.
"It's very important to keep the wine, fruit and vegetables in a special container [on their trip to the base]. Otherwise, you'll receive frozen food and once it defrosts it will start to melt," said Ficara. "This time, for the first time in maybe ten years, we had a problem with a flight and I didn't receive all the fresh food I was ordering. It's never sure that you will receive anything."
All in all, Ficara has enjoyed his time at Concordia, but nonetheless anticipates returning to a kitchen that isn't in the middle of nowhere and all the "luxuries" that this entails. In parting, he offered a few words of advice for Concordia's future chefs.
"The hardest part is the ingredients. We aren't living in a normal place, and all [the] food we have here is frozen, so it's quite hard to get the right flavor and taste to the food," he said. "But always keep a high morale, a good attitude. Never get lazy, always try to do new things."