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Erin Grimes, who grew up in Chatham, relaxes in her sleeping bag inside her igloo. The igloo was built by another camper taking part in the “Happy Camper” survival course that Grimes participated in during her time in Antarctica.
By Erin Grimes | SUBMITTED
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Southern cooking
A chef from Chatham heads to the bottom of the world to work at McMurdo Station
By Julie Cellini

It's the highest, driest, coldest place on Earth, and 98 percent of it is frozen solid. But when chef Erin Grimes got the opportunity to cook in Antarctica for five months last year, she signed up for the culinary challenge of a lifetime, literally cooking on ice, roughly a thousand miles from the South Pole.

Raised in Chatham, Grimes, 30, is a trained chef, although she prefers being called a cook. As she sees it, "People far more talented than I call themselves cooks. I'm still paying my dues."

A graduate of the Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., Grimes has worked the restaurant scene since she was a student at Glenwood High School. She says she learned a lot on the job working everywhere from sub shops to hotel kitchens, and her professional training equipped her to work in many environments. "But," she says, "nothing could fully prepare me for the challenges of cooking in Antarctica." 

How does a central Illinois native land a job her father, Jim Grimes, likens to "being on Mars?" 

Home in Chatham recently for a brief visit, Grimes talked about how her odyssey began, when the U.S. economy took a downturn and she found herself scrambling for work. 

"What's it like to be Erin's family?" her mother, Jan Grimes, muses.  "At 2, Erin gripped the top bar of the swing set and shouted 'I'm doing it!' At 3, she was unafraid to jump off the high dive. At 4, she was most interested in what was OFF the path in the wildlife preserve. I stopped worrying about the trail-blazing side of her. What worries me most is the distance we need to cross to keep in touch."

Frozen village
A peripatetic traveler, Erin Grimes has lived many places both inside and outside the U.S. Over the past decade, she moved for work some 20 times, taking only two jobs outside the kitchen - once as a cocktail waitress in California and another as banquet captain at a Hilton hotel in Montana.   

"When the job market really got rough," she says, "I talked with some friends familiar with the United States Antarctic Program that coordinates operational support for scientific research stations in Antarctica. I learned that for every scientist working in the field, it takes 15 support people - and everybody has to eat."

Grimes researched Antarctica and accessed the USAP Web cam to see the stations where thousands of people live and work during the summer season from September to March. On the Web, McMurdo Station, the largest and most populated, appeared to Grimes to be a big, desolate mining camp. She decided she wanted to go anyway. 

"I filled out the paperwork and was lucky enough to be chosen to join a team of 24 that would cook four meals a day at McMurdo. Every day, we'd cook for 350 to 1,000 people, depending on how much scientific research was going on at any one time."

Grimes' youth and robust health helped her in the applicant-screening process. Health care is a major concern in an isolated place like McMurdo, where a small team of doctors cares for the workers. Serious accident victims and those with acute illnesses are airlifted to New Zealand, although weather always is a factor in getting people off the ice shelf. Even routine health issues - like wisdom teeth - can be a problem. 

Grimes got her first look at McMurdo Station after traveling for 24 hours from Denver, Colo. From the air, she says, it looked like a frozen village on a sheet of ice more than 200,000 miles across. There are about 100 support buildings, dormitories and a huge dining hall where Grimes worked. It's all linked by snow-packed roads that wind around gigantic, gleaming glaciers that drape McMurdo Sound.   

"Living in the cold takes a toll on your body," Grimes says. "At first, I thought all the warnings they gave us about over extending ourselves were for older people. But after working a few 10-hour shifts in the kitchen, I was exhausted. I was amazed at how much energy my body used just staying warm. We had lots of recreational opportunities like movies or shooting pool - and even a gym with treadmills - but initially I was so tired I'd try to read in bed and never even get the book open. 

"At times I ached all over. Like I'd aged 20 years overnight." 

Ever-changing menu
Early on, Grimes learned that meal planning in Antarctica means adapting to what's in the pantry on any given day. 

More than 11 million pounds of supplies are flown into McMurdo each year, much of it dried or frozen food. During the Antarctic summer, fresh produce arrived by plane about once a week, weather permitting. Her team tried to have each meal contain some fresh produce or fruit that would enhance the frozen and packaged ingredients.     

Grimes worked shifts beside seven or eight other cooks, usually getting one day off each week. She describes the huge kitchen where they worked as clean, organized and as modern as any she has ever seen. Equipment included 10 ovens and skillets so big they could cook 16 gallons of food at a time.

Initially, the hardest part of the job was the heavy lifting. Grimes says she had to learn to ask her teammates for help.  

"One day, I realized I had carried about 800 pounds of meat back and forth in a couple hours. You can't do that for long in desert-dry air before your body starts to give out." 

Although Grimes had cooked in large quantities at other jobs, she found it a daily challenge to gauge the amount of seasoning for enormous batches of spicy Indian vegetarian food, roast turkey, duck breast and rack of lamb. 

Diners ranged from snow plow drivers to nuclear scientists. She says the cooks tried to please the meat-and-potatoes crowd as well as the sophisticated foodies, usually with mixed results. Even made-to-order omelets and fresh-baked pastries on Sunday mornings didn't please everyone.

"I think some people just wanted comfort food, like their moms used to make, and didn't want to bother trying new things. I'd get annoyed and considered telling them their mom didn't work in our kitchen. For me, cooking is never boring and it teaches me new and exciting things about myself. If occasionally someone knows I made a dish they liked, that gives me a good feeling. It's not like I'm in it for the praise. 

"We all screwed up in the kitchen. That's the nature of cooking.  It helped us bond into a team of friends who had fun cooking side by side and kidding each other when dishes didn't turn out as expected."

Grimes describes her colleagues as multi-generational and from varied backgrounds. Some were hip restaurant people who inspired each other to try putting new flavors together. But creativity suffered because of the demands of the job.  

"It was not like what you see on TV's 'Top Chef.' It's more realistic - like thankless, hard work where you do the best you can with the ingredients you have."

Challenges
Grimes says some of the most basic tasks, like cooking rice, were especially tricky because the dry air forced her to keep inventing new ratios of water to grains. The staff also had to deal with lower liquid boiling points and the moisture-sucking effects of altitude on cakes and cookies.

Food failures were common for even the most experienced cooks. Grimes' most notable faux pas was a roux she made to thicken chicken cordon bleu sauce. It turned out pasty and flour-laden, despite her efforts to add condiments and spices to enhance the flavor.

"I got so mad at myself because it's a basic blending technique I've done hundreds of times before. I kept adding to it and adding to it, but it never did taste right. We didn't waste anything, so for a week we had about 30 gallons of the stuff. It was enough to thicken every soup, sauce and gravy we made." 

Kitchen chaos was part of the job. Grimes referred to it as "the gravity curse."

"Whether it was nervousness or exhaustion, I'd sometimes feel like five feet above my head there was a voice telling me to not do something stupid. Occasionally I'd spill whole waterfalls of vegetable stock, or somehow manage to locate the only shelf in the kitchen that broke to pieces. We all did it. I remember clutching a table and bracing myself I was laughing so hard at some of the goofy stuff that went on in the kitchen. Those are the memories that sustain me - not the perfectly marked and marbled meats we turned out, but the juggling acts with plates and trays that went awry. Life is boring without a few bumps." 

Grimes and her co-workers worked the busy summer season in bright sunlight nearly 24 hours a day.  

With little cloud cover, sunburn is dangerous. Every doorway had a sunscreen dispenser and a sign urging workers to keep reapplying, despite temperatures that hovered around zero.  

Grimes slept in a dorm room with no windows and three roommates. They hung bed sheets to create a little privacy. "The constant sunshine didn't keep us awake. We usually fell asleep the minute we hit our pillows."

Fun and future
Not that it was all work and no play. 

Grimes rang in New Year 2011 at a festival dubbed "Ice Stock," a Woodstock-themed, six-hour concert of local talent that ranged from classic rock to a combo that billed itself "Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem," like the Muppets band. 

Another diversion was a 10K race around McMurdo Sound. Grimes chose to cheer the runners on from the sidelines, but she did participate in quarter-mile hikes straight up glaciers, and a "Happy Campers" survival course that ended with Grimes and a roommate sleeping overnight in an igloo, hand-cut out of ice blocks by another camper. 

How was it? 

"Surprisingly warm and comfortable," she says. "Snow is actually pretty good insulation."

Barely missing a February earthquake that killed 300 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, Grimes' trip home to the U.S. was diverted and took nearly a week. She's now working as sous chef at the Belton Chalet, a fine dining restaurant at Glacier National Park in Kalispell, Mont. In September, she will return to Antarctica.

"I think it's important," she says, "to do something on a regular basis that scares you. Not something stupid or dangerous, but something intimidating that gives your spine a workout. For me, that's the challenge of cooking on the ice."

 


 

Erin Grimes

 

  • Age: 30
  • Hometown: Chatham
  • Education: graduate of Glenwood High School; Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore.
  • Who inspires her: "My co-workers inspire me. They make me tougher. They show up for work - even volunteer work - when they are under the weather or dealing with grief or have worked their (butts) off in other more stressful situations."

 

 

Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )

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