• A bleak, isolated Davis in early March. The only warmth coming from the kitchen and mess lighting. (Patrick James)Source: Patrick James
"You are constantly thinking about how you can preserve food for longer, keep a variety of food going, and use leftover food."
Seraphina Seow

6 Apr 2020 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2020 - 12:49 PM

Imagine having to prepare meals for a group of people who have different taste preferences, diverse personalities, and are fighting the dreariness that comes with isolation.

Imagine doing it with only a single shipment of food for 365 days.

This is the reality for Donna Wightman, a chef based at Davis Research Station in Antarctica, one of the three stations that belong to the Australian Antarctic Division, which conducts scientific research in the world's southernmost continent as part of Australia's Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

In the winter months, she is the only chef working in the kitchen and has the extraordinary task of feeding the crew from March to November out of one lot of food. 

Donna puts the final touches on mango and rhubarb panna cotta desserts at an Indian themed banquet.

Donna is also the deputy station leader at Davis. She handles both her roles with ease, having been the winter chef six times since 2003 for both New Zealand and Australia's Antarctic bases. 

The food shipment carries supplies for 94 Davis crew members in summer and 24 in winter. Supplies mostly come from a Tasmanian providore, which includes limited fresh produce like apples and root vegetables. It also contains dried, tinned, vacuum-sealed and frozen food. Donna says, "Freezer space [at Davis] is at a premium!"

They also order a few exclusive items like goat's cheese and duck breast to mark special occasions and boost morale.

"You need to think about the people you are cooking for, what they like to eat."

The food needs to last the two-week journey across the Southern Ocean to Davis. Eggs are oiled to prevent ageing effects from air and 'ethyl stoppers' in fruit and vegetable containers slow ripening.

Once the shipment docks, fresh produce is placed in fridges customised to preserve each kind. Once the fridges run out, Davis has a hydroponic system that produces a limited supply of vegetables and herbs.

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When menu planning, Donna remembers that each person has a different idea of what tastes like home. "[You need to] think about the people you are cooking for, what they like to eat," says Donna. "And try not to hammer one item, like tinned tomatoes, all the time."

The non-perishables pantry: Donna and helpers replenish this weekly from stocks in the main Green Store.

The crew help themselves to breakfast and snacks which are simpler fares. Donna prepares hot takeaway-style food for a break at 10am. Lunch is a selection of salads, sandwiches and dinner leftovers. Dinner can be anything from Thai green chicken curry to black bean beef.

She allocates a different dish type to each day of the week to make sure the menu is varied. To up the excitement, "Every second Saturday is a themed or formal night where we celebrate and decorate the dining room," she says. 

An assortment of Christmas dinner desserts.

The constraints of cheffing in Antarctica pushes Donna to be resourceful. "The uniqueness is the fact that you use all your skillset from baking, bread making, main meals, pickling, preserving of food, to desserts.

"You are constantly thinking about how you can preserve food for longer, keep a variety of food going, and use leftover food."

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Living in Antarctica requires one to be self-sufficient. The nine winter months are quiet and dark, with the sun disappearing completely for two months.

"At first there is so much going on, from learning about the environment you are in, to on-the-job training, knowing where everything is and how to get to it," Donna says. "Once the dust settles, you start to realise that you really are isolated especially in these winter months. 

"You start to look after yourself better because there is no way of getting home. You think of and contact home more often to stay in touch and you get yourself into a routine from work to exercise, sauna, spa, doing some knitting or watching a TV series that you are interested in."

Having first-hand experience of the isolation blues, Donna is driven to make food a point of human connection.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @s.seraphinaPhotographs by Patrick James, Davis Research Station.

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