INSIDE The Princess Elisabeth Polar Research Station In Antarctica

In East Antarctica, it’s even colder than usual. The wind is howling and temperatures plummet to a bone-chilling -58°F (-50°C). All that stands between the researchers at Princess Elisabeth, and the relentless winds with top speeds of 155 mph (249 kph) is the station, the only habitable environment in the Queen Maud Land region. One can imagine it is quite difficult for scientists to be fed and happy in one of the most remote locations on the planet. A flair for comfort food is understandably a requisite skill for any chef working in this environment.

Thomas Duconseille is the head chef at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station.
Courtesy International Polar Foundation

Chef Thomas Duconseille has braved the unforgiving cold temperatures and harsh conditions of Antarctica to serve up some comforting food to the group of hard-working scientists stationed at Princess Elizabeth. He seeks to provide dishes that are hearty and heavy for the body, like fondue and raclette, providing a much-needed break from the monotony of working 3,100 miles away from the closest city and almost 10,000 miles from home.

Cooking under these conditions is not easy though. The challenges are unique, but one thing is for sure: when it does come time to treat the crew of researchers, hot cheese is always a crowd favorite.

Courtesy International Polar Foundation

Princess Elisabeth is set on a ridge next to Utsteinen Nunatak, a mountain referred to as “the outer stone,” in the Sør Rondane mountain range. From the window of Duconseille’s office, one can see icy granite mountains and snowy lowlands dotted with in-field accommodations units, laboratory containers, and wind turbines poking out of the snow.

From November to February, the stunningly glacial, mountainous landscape experiences a never-ending sunlight with the sun sinking behind the ridge for only a three-hour time period. During this period, 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 perform routine scientific experimentation and develop solutions to counter climate change. Many of the researchers are present for only a few weeks, while some choose to stick around for the season. Duconseille, the resident chef of Princess Elisabeth, is no exception and is now working his seventh season in Antarctica.

Since early 2009, Princess Elisabeth – which is operated by Brussels-based International Polar Foundation – has stood out amongst polar research stations, not just for its age but because it is the world’s first zero-emission polar research station, relying solely on renewable energy in one of the most unforgiving climates. On the outside, the hexagonal structure is a delightful sight, its silver panels and white exterior blending into the icy landscape. Remarkably, inside it is almost homely; Duconseille, a Frenchman, will treat early risers to freshly baked brioche bread with chocolate inside, bringing a hint of comfort from back home.

Courtesy International Polar Foundation

Since Princess Elisabeth is located six hours away from the closest city, Cape Town, South Africa, Duconseille takes precaution by freezing meat, fish and vegetables to last the season and storing eggs in five-liter crates with the whites and yolks divided. Also, a shipment of fresh ingredients is flown in from Cape Town every month (as long as the weather conditions allow).

Despite its high altitude of 4,475 feet above sea level, Princess Elisabeth Station is able to remain comfortable and shielded from the weather due to its construction with woolen felt, heavy-duty Kraft paper, aluminum, wood panels, polystyrene, waterproofing membrane, polyethylene foam, and stainless steel. Science liaison officer Henri Robert explains that during the summer, no additional heating is required as the station naturally gains enough radiation through the sun and the presence of the people within to achieve an internal temperature of 20-21°C (68-69.8°F).

By utilizing a combination of nine wind turbines and 408 solar photovoltaic panels, the power of 100 days of consistent sunshine and strong gusts of wind is being captured to power the station. According to Robert, a native of Belgium, “We are situated lower than the Antarctic Circle, so we are blessed with consistent sunshine throughout the day. We even have a mountain to the south of us that provides us with a few hours of shade every day, although the sun never dips below the horizon.”

To reach the Princess Elisabeth, one must depart from Cape Town South Africa and soar through the skies on board a DC-3 aircraft. This particular type of plane is ideal for transporting cargo and safely traversing icy airstrips, making the six-hour flight there little more than a breeze. Once arrived, it’s another 90 minutes of travel to the station. Provisions of fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk are also brought to the station on the monthly trips (pending favorable weather) utilizing the DC-3, a setup wholly different and more anxiety-inducing than the frantic last minute trips to a grocery store for forgotten handfuls of herbs and thickened cream. Despite the unconventional provisions, Duconseille has adjusted to the pressure and rigors of the job.

Courtesy International Polar Foundation
Courtesy International Polar Foundation

“More and more, I have grown used to waiting a month between fresh food deliveries. Years ago, when I first started the job, it was difficult because fresh food wears fast. With experience, I know what will go bad first, so for the first week, we have a lot of fresh salads. I manage it so I can make these ingredients last as long as possible. Over these four weeks, I am able to manage, and until the fourth week I can still offer something appetizing to eat,” says Duconseille.

Duconseille offers a diverse array of dishes at Princess Elizabeth, ranging from soups and meats to pizza, salads, quiches, and desserts. He also ensures there is always a vegetarian or vegan option for all to enjoy. For special occasions such as Christmas or New Year’s, Duconseille prepares additional dishes like foie gras, turkey with stuffing and iced nougat.

The station has traditionally seen anywhere from 20 to 30 crew members at a given time, though its facilities have expanded to accommodate up to 50 people over the years. Crew members work to support Chef Duconseille in the kitchen, alternating between tasks such as setting the table, drying dishes, and peeling potatoes. Meal preparation is a communal effort, particularly given the remoteness of the station and the varying crew sizes. In order to adequately provide sustenance to the station, it is essential that a stockpile of staple foods is consistently replenished between seasons – including non-perishable items such as grains, beans, and canned tomatoes – in addition to the monthly fresh food shipments.

Duconseille noted, “From Belgium, we fill up shipping containers with a wide selection of both dry and frozen food, and a shipment of these ingredients are delivered to us.” At the station, the food is held in a large downstairs room with shelves for the dry food, a large freezer rated to -13°F, and a smaller refrigerator running between 41-44°F. Duconseille further added, “We actually have fridges that need to be warmed up because some ingredients like specific fruits just can’t be frozen.”

Duconseille does not plan meals in advance, but rather, he keeps a careful inventory of his food, so that he knows exactly what he has at his disposal. The delicate nature of the food items necessitates a certain amount of adaptability and creativity. “I cook based on gut instinct,” explains Duconseille, “How many people there are, or which ingredients will be passing their expiration date soon. It all depends on what I have on hand.” Due to the extreme geography of the eastern Antarctic region, researchers at Princess Elisabeth often go on extended field trips, some lasting up to three weeks, with groups of four to six people. As the chef, Duconseille plays a vital role in ensuring the success of these expeditions. “For these trips, I need to estimate how many meals they’ll need while away from the station. Whenever I make a big meal, I freeze some so their expedition team can take them and defrost them when necessary, rather than wasting time on food preparation in the field,” says Duconseille.

For the past ten years, Duconseille has worked as the manager of a variety of mountain huts in the French Alps, including Mont Blanc’s Goûter Hut, which is the highest wardened mountain hut in France.

“I have always been interested in unique landscapes, stunning places, and spots at high elevations. It’s a small circle of people who do this kind of work where I’m from, so another cook spread the word around to the station’s managing director about me. Finishing a stint at one place can open up new opportunities, and that’s how I made my way from the Alps to Antarctica,” Duconseille remarks. Outside of the summer season in Antarctica, he continues to work in the French Alps, providing food, lodging and support to individuals taking one of the five paths up Mont Blanc, a peak that reaches 15,771 ft (4,807 meters).

The Princess Elisabeth crew puts in long hours throughout the week, observing Sundays as “fun day” whenever the weather allows it. On those days, the team has the opportunity to join field guides and explore the nearby nunataks – the snow-covered mountain ridges that resemble boney plates extending out of an ice-bound stegosaurus’ back. Duconseille enjoys heading out with the group to the mountains, and makes sure to get some exercise at the 1.2-mile-long airstrip, usually running. Sunday nights are dedicated to taking a break, reading, and preparing for the following week.

Duconseille states, “At the close of summer, we are delighted to return home, but our emotions are complex because we sorrowfully bid farewell to Antarctica. It is an impressive habitat and a one-of-a-kind experience.”