Meet the chef who cooks gourmet meals in the most remote corner of the world at -51.3°C

Chef Marco Smerilli works at Concordia Research Station in Antarctica

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Thu 22 Sep 2022, 8:22 PM

Marco Smerilli remembers the last time he had a fresh banana with the kind of memory power that one usually reserves for life’s unforgettable moments. “March,” he says, without skipping a beat. In fact, it’s been seven months since he’s had fresh fruit, although he does have a few months’ supply of apples, which is of some consolation.

Smerilli is a chef at Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian research facility in Antarctica, which has been described as the ‘most remote corner of the world’. When we speak via Zoom, it’s the middle of the winter campaign so the research base is inaccessible and isolated from the rest of the world. Its closest neighbour, the Russian research station Vostok Station, is about 560 km away. “It is pretty cold,” he adds. “Now it’s - 51.3°C and the wind chill is -68.8°C.”

Still, there is much to be cheerful about — just last night, Smerilli watched the spectacular Northern Lights, and the 13-member team at the research base has just emerged from three months of total darkness. “The last sunset we saw was on May 5 and the next time we saw the sun was on August 10. We are very happy now.” The summer campaign begins in November, so in about two months’ time, planes will come roaring in, loaded with glorious fresh fruits, vegetables, meat delicacies and more people.

Living in isolation

The research base, according to its website, was built 3,233 metres above sea level on the Antarctic Plateau and has scientists from the European Space Agency. One of its two towers, called the noisy tower, has a gym, TV room, kitchen and living room. The ‘quiet tower’, on the other hand, has a hospital, the sleeping quarters and laboratory. Besides glaciologists, astrophysicists and meteorologists, there is also a doctor to study the residents’ sleep patterns and how their brains function in such extreme conditions.

Smerilli first arrived here in 2018. “Initially, it felt like a very strange, different world and it took me some time to adapt,” he recalls. After all, Antarctica is a far cry from Sardinia, where the Italian chef was working in a restaurant and bar when he first heard about the job. “My friend asked me whether I wanted to go to Antarctica,” says Smerilli, who has worked in restaurants around the world, including a Michelin-starred one. One has to undergo a medical test and psychological evaluation before coming to the research base, he adds.

The day we speak to Smerilli, the surface pressure there is 650 hPa. Simple tasks like breathing, sleeping and walking can feel a bit like an Olympic sport. “We never sleep well — it’s not like in the normal world,” he says. And then, there is the unimaginable cold. “In the winter, temperatures can go down to - 75°C. It’s so cold that even fuel gets frozen, so nobody can come here and take you away. But our winters are getting warmer — it’s very worrying. Climate change is no joke,” cautions the 40-year-old.

The team meets every Saturday to talk and share about their week so far. Rules at the research base include: respect meal times, keep rooms clean and, interestingly, don’t pee in the shower. “That’s because we use recycled water here for everything,” the chef explains.

Cooking in isolation

Smerilli prepares a food inventory a year in advance. “In the summer, between November and the end of January, a truck travels from the coast to Concordia with frozen food as it takes about two weeks to reach. We get fresh food delivered through planes which fly all the way from New Zealand and Tasmania. We store the food in about seven containers outside the base and refrigerate the rest.” He orders ingredients like flour, pasta, oil and butter in bulk — this year, he ordered nearly 300 kilos of flour and 250 bottles of mayonnaise and Tabasco sauce. Orders usually begin at 50 kilos.

Fruits and vegetables get over by February and by the end of the winter campaign, they run out of fresh food completely. Even the yeast they use is frozen. “We eat frozen zucchini,” he says, dryly. “It becomes very hard to make tasty food with frozen ingredients. I am really waiting for November when I can make a simple Greek salad with some fresh ingredients.”

In the beginning, he made a few rookie mistakes like forgetting to defrost the food the day before. “So I had to defrost it under hot water, and I used to feel very bad.” But today he works like a magician, transforming frozen food into gourmet food like filetto alla Rossini with truffle and foie gras, pasta alla carbonara and cacio e pepe.

On a regular day, his day begins at 7:30am. “I like the smell of fresh bread in the morning, so I make it straightaway,” he says. Then he works on lunch and dinner but also gets time to relax a bit in between by watching a TV show or taking a nap. Things get busier during the summer campaign — Smerilli is joined by another chef and the two cook for 50-80 people who stay at the research base till January or February. “Then my days get pretty hectic — it’s shower, cook, sleep and repeat,” he says.

But right now, there are 13 people at the base — predominantly a mix of Italian and French scientists and technicians. Although it’s relatively easier, Smerilli still has to cook and serve them a slice of France and Italy on their plates every day, three times a day. On important days like Christmas and New Year’s, his kitchen transforms into a buzzing restaurant. “It’s like war, or a soccer final match where it becomes Us vs Them,” he laughs. After the interview, Smerilli shares the kitchen’s Christmas and New Year menus and it becomes obvious why a VICE article once described the research base’s kitchen as a ‘five star restaurant’. There is olive ascolane, crema fritta, parmigiana, escargot, filetto al pepe verde, gamberoni al prosecco — and that’s just the Christmas menu.

Birthdays, too, are a big deal here. The day after we speak, for instance, is a French technician’s birthday and Smerilli has already planned the menu: escargot with butter, bisque prawns, some fresh pasta and lemon tart. “But with frozen lemon,” he reminds us, with a laugh. “You have to defrost the lemon, make marmalade and then make the cake — it’s not just a two hour process here.”

Smerilli tries to make Saturday night dinners special by serving tartare or pizza and on Sundays, it’s usually lasagna with ragù or cannelloni. “You can have fun with food. Sometimes we stay in the kitchen together, listen to music, have a pizza or burger night.”

“Here, we call (this place) White Mars because everything is flat and we see the same landscape the whole time — we don’t stay on the coast, where you have the sea, penguins and other animals,” he continues. “We do have recreational facilities like a ping pong table, a TV and so on, but food really brings us together. It’s nice to eat a meal together and talk to the team, who are now like family. And also, sometimes, it’s psychological stuff — you just need a slice of chocolate cake to feel better!”

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