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3-Course Interview: Dan O’Keefe

A New Orleans chef who is heading to Antarctica to cook for explorers — in sub-zero temperatures



Until recently, Dan O'Keefe helmed the kitchen at the restaurant biscuits & buns on banks, but in October he is heading south to McMurdo Station, the largest base in Antarctica. O'Keefe was hired by the National Science Foundation to work as the sous chef at the base, where he will cook for roughly 1,200 scientists and workers. What sounds like the adventure of a lifetime also packs significant challenges and unusual working conditions: During the austral summer (roughly October to February) the sun never sets, and the average temperature hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit. O'Keefe spoke with Gambit about how he is preparing for the trip and what to cook in subzero temperatures.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

O'Keefe: My best friend approached me in 1988 and said, '"You want to go camping next weekend?" I said, "It's January, and we're in New Hampshire — are you out of your mind?" But we went and it was 15 degrees below zero at night and thankfully we had the right equipment and gear — and we ate like kings! That's the thing that really hooked me the most. We had a stove. ... I was able to make London broil and I made tortellini with Gorgonzola. It really doesn't matter where you are, there's no excuse for making a bad meal. That (experience) was instrumental in me taking this job.

How does one prepare for a job like this and what kind of training is involved?

O: We fly to Sydney, Australia and then from there we go to Christchurch, New Zealand (for training). We'll be there two days or so and then fly out on a huge, (U.S.) Air Force cargo jet and land directly on McMurdo base.

  The company is extremely environmentally conscious. They want to train people about what you can do and what you can't do ... what you can touch and what you can't touch. There's a lot of training for safety ... if something did happen, it can be days until you make it to a hospital.

  Safety is really the big thing ... we'll have whiteout training, which is what to do if you get stuck in a storm and you can't see ... and we'll be receiving extreme cold weather gear.

  Being in shape is absolutely essential. ... I'm going to be pulling 60 hours a week so I've been working out on a daily basis to prepare. I was lucky; they put me in touch with the chef who had my position before me. He'll be there on the ground with me for the first three weeks, showing me the ropes.

What does one cook and eat in subzero conditions?

O: There's a lot of mouths to feed. ... It's a 24-hour operation. It's institutional-style cooking. There is a primary mess hall, which of course won't fit everyone. There are several meals throughout the course of the day, six to be exact. Food is prepared en masse, and there's a five-week rotating meal plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There's a lot of vegan and health-conscious meals — every meal has a vegan option and every meal has a healthy choice.

  But there will be a great deal of comfort food because the caloric intake in that type of cold weather is recommended to be between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day.

  All my supplies for 2015 and 2016 came in last year. Everything. Except vegetables and fruit: that's a summer treat, and they come in on a regular basis during the summer, but they're very short-lived.

  The thing that I admire the most is that they have several ethnic themes. So, they'll have Turkish food or Mediterranean food or Chinese food; there's even a New Orleans day. They mix it up because (the workers) are very culturally diverse. (It's) exciting, because the day you stop learning as a chef is the day you start becoming a bad chef. It necessitates creativity.

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