"I am a professional chef by trade and world traveler by passion," says Darby Butts, the new food service supervisor at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. He tells me this via email, as he has just recently arrived at the southernmost place on Earth, and cell service is understandably dicey.
But Butts is not a dyed-in-the-wool polar explorer. Prior to taking on his current position last month, Butts was the general manager at Davis' Pub—an Annapolis, Maryland hangout known for its crab cakes and laid-back atmosphere—but his travel and work experience started 20 years prior.
At 15 years old, Butts got his first job in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at a waterfront crab house in Annapolis. By 23, he had moved up the ranks to earn the title of executive chef. In 2007, he became a GM for the first time.
"I first fell in love with traveling when I was very young, maybe six or seven years old, when my family went to the British Virgin Islands," Butts says. Since then, he has traveled the world extensively, joining his passion for the culinary arts with exploration.
'It is total darkness 24 hours a day, and it is too cold to get any planes in or out. So you are basically stuck there.'
"I have had the pleasure of learning from and cooking with chefs, hosts, locals, mothers, [and] grandmothers in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Jordan, France, Italy, Jamaica, Bahamas, Kenya, Tanzania, Ecuador, Russia, Turkey, and probably a few places I'm forgetting," Butts says.
And yet Butts has never received formal culinary training. His approach to food is all about the direct connection between the quality and source of ingredients, and using his skills and knowledge to highlight those ingredients.
Butts first had the idea to look for a culinary position in Antarctica after a trip to the primary Amazon rainforest in February of 2015, when he realized he had already visited five continents. "At that point, I knew that I wanted to combine my love of food and travel into a full-time job. I wanted to get to all seven continents, and [I knew] that no matter where you go in this world, people need to eat. If you can feed people and make them happy, you have a marketable skill."
Once he decided to make the move, Butts began researching job opportunities in the food industry in the South Pole. "After reading articles online about working in Antarctica, I found out about the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) and from there, Google helped me find the rest."
Here's how it works: The National Science Foundation (NSF) manages USAP, the national program of research on the planet's southernmost continent. NSF funds scientific research in Antarctica, runs three year-round research stations there, and provides all the logistical support for the science. NSF's logistical contractor, Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) and subcontractors, hire the people who provide logistical support, which includes everyone from mechanics and carpenters to food service workers.
"At that point," Butts says, "I was able to find out which company provided Food Service Logistics, and I applied."
But the application process was tedious and lengthy.
"I was first contacted by email," Butts says. "It was actually several months after I had applied, and I was not expecting it at all." Next came a phone interview, which led to several rounds of emails and phone calls, and eventually he was offered jobs for both the summer and winter contracts. Once he accepted them, Butts underwent an extensive background check and drug screening.
Butts then flew to the ASC headquarters for a panel interview and a thorough psychiatric evaluation. After rigorous testing—including physical and dental examinations, blood work, X-rays, ultrasounds, and EKGs—he officially got the job and was given his deployment date.
During the austral summer season, the Antarctic station has a population of about 150 people. The season lasts about three and a half months, during which there is light 24 hours a day. Cargo, including fresh food, frequently comes in and out.
During the austral winter season, however, the population drops to about 45 people. Over the course of those eight and a half months, the buffet is prepared mostly from frozen food, which is kept in the largest freezer on the planet.
"It is total darkness 24 hours a day, and it is too cold to get any planes in or out," Butts says of winter. "So you are basically stuck there. When you stay for a winter, you are what is called 'a winter-over.' Because the winter-overs are all on their own in the most remote place on Earth, they need to be completely self-reliant."
"Everyone is on an Emergency Response Team (ERT)," Butts adds. "Before deploying, you receive either medical or firefighter training. I chose firefighter." Butts also participated in team-building and safety training, which will continue throughout his one-year-long contract.
"They make sure that they hire people who are very experienced in their field," Butts says, "because it is already challenging enough to go work at the highest, driest, windiest, coldest, and most remote place on Earth." In addition to his responsibilities as an ERT, Butts will work long days, nearly every day, supervising the kitchen.
"My duties as food service supervisor are much like my duties when I was running a restaurant," he says. "I am responsible for overseeing a staff that cooks and serves three meals a day and brunch on Sundays." During the austral summer season, he has a staff of seven people: two sous chefs, a production cook, a baker, and three stewards, who are responsible for all front-of-house operations. During the austral winter season, however, there will be just four on staff, including Butts.
'I am spending a year living in the harshest and most remote environment on planet Earth, almost nine months of which will be spent in total darkness and isolation with only about 45 other people.'
"What's different about this commitment is really the commitment itself," he says. "I knew that to be truly happy, I had to keep exploring and finding new adventures. I knew that unless I left my comfort zone I would never really be fulfilled.
"Because of my job duties, I spend most of my time indoors but I get outside as much as I can during my free time," Butts says. "This is the most beautiful and amazing place on the planet, and I intend to take full advantage of it."
All of the living space is contained within the station, including the galley, the berthing areas, science departments, the computer room, offices, lounges, a gym, a music room, and movie rooms. Butts has a private bedroom, which is like a small dorm room with a closet, desk, and bed. And the kitchen is a standard commercial kitchen—clean and outfitted with all of the necessary equipment.
Butts acknowledges that, despite all of the mod-cons available at the station, he will face significant challenges. "I am spending a year living in the harshest and most remote environment on planet Earth, almost nine months of which will be spent in total darkness and isolation with only about 45 other people. Whether I like it or not, those people will be my family."
And family is very important to him. The biggest challenge is being away from his mom, who previously lived six doors down from him and has been very supportive of this journey. "She has my dog, Dash, though. He'll look after," he says.
As for life after the South Pole, with no living expenses at the station, Butts will be financially set after his contracts conclude, allowing him to continue to travel. "This place is magical. I can't even begin to express how amazing it is," he says. "Walking off that LC-130 and looking out across the polar plateau was a moment I will never forget. It was a moment where, for whatever reason, I felt like I was home. At least for the next year."