The Big Chill: Local chef returns from cooking gig at research station in Antarctica

TRAVERSE CITY – Jason Backlund, a Great Lakes Culinary Institute grad and Upper Peninsula native, just returned to TC from a six-month cooking gig in Antarctica. He was based at the McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center operated by the National Science Foundation.

Backlund, 33, was part of a staff that services upwards of 1,000 residents supporting McMurdo Station. This was not gourmet cooking. This was stick-to-your-ribs fuel for people who work in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet.

Just days after returning to his home continent, Backlund sat down with the TCBN to share some highlights of cooking in one of the most isolated places on earth.

TCBN: First, tell us a little about the weather extremes you experienced.

JB: When I left here in August it was 80 degrees. When we got to New Zealand it was springtime and in the 40s. When we landed in Antarctica it was 50 degrees below zero. One of the first things they did was outfit us with extreme cold weather gear. Also, when I first arrived there was just two hours of light a day. A couple months later, the sun was up nearly 24 hours. On Feb. 21, they had the first sunset in months.

TCBN: What were you cooking, and for how many people?

JB: I started as a production cook but after a month was promoted to sous chef. The volume of cooking was amazing. At the peak of the season we were cooking for 1,100 people per meal. We were using 200 pounds of meat for a casserole. The standard meal was two proteins, a vegetarian option, a starch, a vegetable and a soup. It was home-style cooking. That's what the people were used to eating.

TCBN: What were the main ingredients you had to work with?

JB: Beef, chicken and pork … and there are only so many ways to cook them. Other than that, we regularly had onions, peppers and tomatoes.

TCBN: What was the most difficult thing about cooking in Antarctica?

JB: Access to product. You had to think out of the box. For example, I had to make beef stroganoff without sour cream or cream of any kind. Sometimes we needed a certain ingredient but it might be at the back of the storage warehouse and you simply couldn't get to it. We had to come up with something else on the fly.

TCBN: How does the station get its food supply and how often?

JB: A resupply vessel arrived during my time there, but a lot of that food will be in the freezer for the next two years. It won't be used until the end of 2013. We were scheduled to get a weekly fresh produce delivery by air from New Zealand. But it sometimes couldn't make it due to weather.

TCBN: So, does the weather get blamed for everything?

JB: The weather holds up a lot of things up down there. The excuse for everything is "harsh continent." No beans for bean soup? Harsh continent.

TCBN: Did you get the chance to add anything to the menu?

JB: Yes. I added pasties.

A true Yooper, indeed. BN