No place on Earth is colder than East Antarctica. Due to its higher elevation, not even West Antarctica can touch its hostile temperatures. Princess Elisabeth, a polar research station in the Queen Maud Land region, faces wind speeds of up to 155 mph (249 kph) and temperatures as low as -58°F (-50°C). A flair for comfort food is understandably a requisite skill for any chef working in this environment. “As people are outside in extremely cold temperatures and harsh conditions, I like to make something nice and heavy for the body, like fondue and raclette. Lots of it,” says chef Thomas Duconseille, who mans this remote Antarctic post for several months each year.
When there’s a group of cold scientists around 3,100 miles from the nearest city and at least 9,900 miles from home, it makes sense that hot cheese goes a long way. If only the rest of Duconseille’s culinary duties were this straightforward — cooking in these conditions comes with unique challenges.
Seven seasons in Antarctica
Princess Elisabeth is anchored to the ridge beside Utsteinen Nunatak, a mountain known as “the outer stone,” in the Sør Rondane mountain range. Outside Duconseille’s office window lie icy granite mountains and bright white lowlands dotted with in-field accommodation units, laboratory containers, and wind turbines that sprout from the snow.
During the summer months of November to February, the glacial, mountainous landscape is bathed in constant light — the sun slips behind the ridge for just three hours a day. During this time, researchers from Belgium, France, Germany, Turkey, India and the United States use the surrounding 124 miles of mountains, coastline, glaciers, and the Antarctic Plateau to conduct scientific research and to develop strategies to address climate change. Some stay for a few weeks and others might stay for the season. Duconseille, the resident chef at Princess Elisabeth, is there for the full four months. This year is his seventh season in Antarctica.
Princess Elisabeth, operated by Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, has been in service since early 2009, making it one of the newer polar research stations. Though it may be young, it’s the world’s first zero-emission polar research station, relying solely on renewable energy in one of the world’s harshest environments. It’s also a sight to behold. Resting atop the ridge, Princess Elisabeth resembles a freshly landed hexagonal spacecraft, its sleek silver panels reflecting the bright whites of the polar landscape.
It’s hard to believe that inside, there’s brioche baking.
“We prepare our own bread and cook it here. Fresh bread is important. I like to make brioche for breakfast with chocolate inside,” says Duconseille. As a Frenchman, good bread is as much a way of life at his post in Antarctica as it is back home in Normandy, or in the Alps, where he spends the better part of the year catering to another breed of explorers on Mont Blanc.
As Princess Elisabeth is a six-hour flight from the nearest city — Cape Town, South Africa — Duconseille ensures meat, fish and vegetables are frozen to last the season and that eggs are stored in five-liter crates with the whites and yolks separated. As for the fresh ingredients, a bundle of these precious goods is flown in every month from Cape Town — providing the weather isn’t too wild.
The challenges of fresh food for a remote outpost
Despite its altitude — 4,475 feet above sea level — Princess Elisabeth remains comfortably warm and protected from the elements thanks to a sturdy combination of woolen felt, heavy-duty Kraft paper, aluminum, wood panels, polystyrene, waterproofing membrane, polyethylene foam, and stainless steel.
“During the summer months, we don’t need to use heating inside the station, because all the radiation from the sun, and our own presence inside the station, is enough to maintain an internal temperature of 20-21°C (68-69.8°F),” says Henri Robert, a science liaison officer at Princess Elisabeth.
Through a hybrid system of nine wind turbines and 408 solar photovoltaic panels, the energy of 100 days of round-the-clock sunshine and ferocious gusts of wind is harnessed to power the station.
“We currently have the sun all day long as we are lower than the Antarctic Circle. Luckily, there’s this mountain to the south of us, so the sun goes behind it and we get a bit of shade for a couple of hours, and then the sun rises again. But it never goes below the horizon,” says Robert, a native of Belgium.