Seventy thick, grass-fed buffalo strip steaks sat in front of me, each individually vacuumed-sealed in a clear plastic bag—red, red meat, wrapped in a red, red film of Myoglobin and water. I found myself a large, green plastic cutting board and an open section of stainless counter next to a deep sink, then I grabbed a red plastic-handled serrated paring knife and a pair of disposable latex gloves—size medium. In the next hour, each one of those steaks would need to be opened, trimmed, patted dry and seasoned.
This was going to be a bloody mess—a hell of a way to celebrate the middle of winter.
A week ago, a sign-up sheet had been posted at the entrance of the galley to recruit volunteers for midwinter dinner— a celebration of the solstice. It was a call for extra stewards to help set-up the banquet, pour drinks, serve appetizers and bus tables, and extra dishwashers to clean up afterwards. Having always enjoyed entertaining, I decided to add my name to the list, and lend my services as an amateur waiter, sommelier, cicerone, and expediter.
Dressed in my only nice non-uniform clothes, a pair of fitted green-grey chinos and a blue and black flannel I had picked up from a small men’s store in Brooklyn, I waltzed into the galley. Appetizers were scheduled to be served in the foyer in 30 minutes, and I knew the head-chef, Darby Butts, would need someone to un-cork bottles of wine, ice sodas and arrange cheese and charcuterie platters for service.
In the South Pole kitchen, three men in white aprons, black pants and baseball caps, were busy at work—filling pastry bags with mousse, rolling out mounds of dough and whisking dressings. They were a sight to behold, a well-oiled machine, working in near silence with a precision and focus that was as palpable as a humid August day in Washington, DC.
Not wanting to interrupt their ballet, I stood at the entrance to the kitchen with a glass of water in my hand, and waited for a break in the chopping, a joke or expletive, some type of opening in which I could ask, “what do you need me to do?” without disrupting their cooking cadence, which had reached the extreme speed and power of a Japanese bullet train. To interrupt them at the wrong moment could derail them—and I didn’t need a severed finger or a burnt pastry resting on my conscience.
“Get your ass in here,” said Darby with the devilish grin of a young boy who had just finished popping all the heads off of his younger sister’s Barbie Dolls. “You see all these steaks?” referring to a mountain of red meat overflowing from a hotel pan. “You are our new prep cook, anything the Sous needs you to do, you do, starting with these,” picking up one of the flaccid steaks like a rag doll and indifferently throwing it back onto the pile. With a bewildered “Okay,” I found an apron and got to work.
We had one hour to get things ready and set in the steamer line. The steaks would be cooked to order, but they all had to be prepped and staged next to the grill before the galley doors opened, and 48 tipsy, hungry and excited individuals found their seats at two long, white tableclothed banquet tables that had been decorated with candles and origami swans.
Adrenaline racing, I worked with a singular focus—cut, trim, dry, salt, pepper, repeat— until three cookie pans were packed with steaks, staged and ready for their communion with fire. With fifteen minutes remaining, I wiped down my counter with soap and bleach, cleaned my knives and ran my cutting board through a large industrial sterilizer.
When I returned to my work station, a plastic grocery bag filled with herbs—mountain mint and fresh basil—lay where my cornucopia of buffalo once sat. Before I could say a word, the Sous handed me a 10-inch chef’s knife, and gave me a one word command: “chiffonade.” I nodded, dropped my head, and began picking the aromatic leaves off their spindly branches—pick, stack, chop, repeat—until the pound of herbs had been tamed into a pile of evenly ribboned confetti.
I looked at my work, and breathed a sigh of accomplishment. It had been eight months since I did any cooking, and I managed to get through an hour of it without making a total fool of myself or severing a major artery.
The first people began to enter the galley, making their way to their seats, with half-finished bottles of wine, mingling with each other with the combination of ease and restlessness that can only be found among those who are two-thirds of the way through a one-year contract at the South Pole.
The kitchen continued to hum, the finishing touches frantically put onto each dish as it was nestled into position on the line atop the steamer trays. I ran a platter of pastries to the dessert table– Peruvian Cocoa Nib Mousse Tarts, garnished with cashew florentines and thin triangles of coconut and chocolate caramel. With extreme self-control, I managed to not pick one off the tray and eat it with my bare hands. Instead, I removed my apron and sat down at a special table that had been reserved for those volunteering that night.
Having spent the last hour plus in the kitchen, I knew the menu inside and out: Grilled bison strip steaks with black truffle demi-glace, potato gnocchi—the last of our fresh potatoes—tossed in a white truffle cream sauce, channa masala tossed with fresh herbs, roasted asparagus wrapped in phyllo dough with a honey balsamic reduction, and a beautiful, fresh green house salad with herb vinaigrette and house-made ciabatta croutons. And those tarts!
Rich and tempting aromas rolled off the line, and while some say the Winter Site manager gave a spirited speech—as is tradition– I can’t recall it, so focused was I on the decadent foods I was about to pile high on my plate. And I’m sure I contributed to the quiet drone of rumbling stomachs that could be heard throughout the galley.
This was going to be a night to remember—a five star meal at the bottom of the earth.