by CIA Instructor Irena Chalmers
If you look at a map of the world, it really isn’t that far from New Zealand to Antarctica. But the distance between working as a pastry chef at a posh New Zealand resort to working as a baker at the remote McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica is enormous. Enter Gemma Tarlach, the Culinary Institute of America ’07 graduate and intrepid baker and chef who found this continent—inhospitable to human life, save for the technology that makes it possible—among her favorite places on earth. After trying out McMurdo for a summer as a production baker (when the research facility has a population of 1,000 and the temperature hovers at a balmy negative five to negative thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit), Gemma decided to “winter over.” That means living through Antarctica’s darkest, windiest, and coldest months, when temperatures range from between negative forty-nine and negative ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. It takes a special kind of person to winter over, and only 200 people remain at McMurdo during these months. Everyone who takes on the challenge of wintering over must pass a psychological evaluation before being accepted. Gemma loves the Antarctic’s barren landscape, the interaction with the station’s scientists, the quirkiness of her colleagues, the challenge of creating good food with limited ingredients, and of course, the ever-present emperor penguins. Supply flights are so few that Gemma’s culinary challenges can be as dramatic as the weather she faces. But having previously worked at both a huge Las Vegas casino preparing banquets for 15,000 and a super-exclusive resort catering to only twenty-four patrons at a time, nothing really ruffles her. She’s gone from having organic flour and exotic fruits at her fingertips whenever she wants them, to relying on the summer plane from New Zealand for fresh dairy products. When fresh ingredients run out, Gemma works with powdered dairy products and other stores from a massive yearly delivery of food, materials, and scientific equipment known as the “vessel evolution.” For the next several months, not even planes can get in or out, so Gemma has learned to be creative in an entirely new way. Tinkering with recipes to get them to work when she has run out of bread, flour, sugar, or molasses can be both fun and maddening, but she loves the challenge.