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Cooking in the cold
South Pole sous chef has worked in kitchens across Europe
Posted February 22, 2008
Michèle Gentille pushes down on the double-handled knife with what appears to be all of her weight, maybe a petite 100 pounds at best, trying to break apart neon yellow blocks of cheese.
It would seem the molecular structure of the commercial-sized bricks of cheddar has changed, altered by its frozen hibernation outside at the South Pole for who knows how long until now, to become part of a vegetarian enchilada dish Gentille is whipping together for a midday meal.
It’s a situation that must be far removed from the European food scene that the South Pole lunch sous chef once traversed. One imagines comfortable, civilized bistros hidden along cobblestone streets; the rich, buttery aroma of French cuisine drawing you in like a siren’s call, to be gastronomically gorged with plates of escargot and gruyere.
A conversation with Gentille conjures such images of chateaus and cavernous wine cellars, with her life like a cross between a Condé Naste travel article and a restaurant review in Food and Wine magazine.
“I’ve always been obsessed with food, ever since I was a little kid,” she explains while curled up in a chair in the South Pole Station dining hall, what Polies refer to as the galley, a throwback term from the Navy days here. The midnight sun, obscured by heavy clouds, throws in plenty of natural light through a row of windows, even now at 8 p.m.
“As soon as I could see over the top of the stove I started playing around with food,” she adds, explaining that her mother had little interest in cooking. A native of Toronto, Canada, she grew up inhaling and ingesting a multi-cultural cuisine around the city’s ethnic markets.
By age 8, when most of us might have managed a TV dinner in the microwave, she was cooking with such anti-kid food as artichokes, and reading cookbooks. In church, she pretended to take notes when she was actually scribbling down recipes.
“I still have my book that I would cut and paste all of my recipes in,” she says. “I would fantasize about food.”
It seemed only natural that she would find herself in France in 1989, attending LaVarenne Culinary School in Paris and Burgundy, one of the best-known cooking schools in the country. She was actually on an editorial work-study program, helping with book editing and recipe testing.
In exchange, she received lessons from the school’s master chefs — and dined in a very French way. “I ate a pound of butter a day, at least,” she says of her yearlong experience.
The next couple of years turned into a European traveling food odyssey, with stints working at restaurants in Italy, aboard a private yacht that sailed around the Greek isles, for a hot air balloon company in Burgundy, and with several international embassies on the continent.
Such good times eventually came to an end. The thousand dollars Gentille had come to Europe with was gone, and many of the jobs she took as a nomadic chef paid little or nothing. She was broke, so it was time to return to Los Angeles, where she had lived before crossing the Atlantic.
While making a living in L.A., like taking jobs as a caterer on film sets, Gentille decided she needed to get out of the kitchen for a while. “I just burned out on cooking, because it’s just a very physically demanding job,” she says.
A mutual friend put the transplanted Canadian in touch with actress Heather Graham, who was looking for a personal assistant as she prepared for a co-starring role in the second Austin Powers movie with actor Mike Myers. Gentille took the job, becoming not so much a personal chef as a “food manager,” teaching Graham to cook and plan meals.
That job with Graham lasted five years, and Gentille later worked for actress Liv Tyler and Canadian fashion model Shalom Harlow after moving to New York to work as a freelance food writer.
The tabloid life of such celebrities that fires the public imagination is far from the truth, Gentille notes. “They’re people just like everybody else,” she says, politely declining a prod for some juicy anecdotes about hedonistic Hollywood parties.
“As far as food goes, they probably eat more than people probably think they do,” she adds, laughing. “They eat almost all day long. But they eat good food, green food.”
Somewhere during all that adventure, Gentille squeezed in a working cruise trip as a sous chef to a state she came to love — Alaska. She wanted to go to even higher latitudes, the Arctic or Antarctic, and eventually applied for a job with the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Last year, she got the call from South Pole Executive Chef James Brown, who manages the most southerly food service operation on the planet. Brown says he takes quite a bit into account when inviting somewhere to work in his kitchen.
“First, the person must have the skills and passion to cook great meals, especially since it is our reputation to have flavorful, nutritious meals here,” he says. A candidate must also possess those qualities shared by most Polies — a personality that centers on teamwork and communication.
“Michele definitely has these talents, and has shown them throughout the season,” he says.
At more than 3,000 meters above sea level, the South Pole offers particular challenges aside from getting a satisfactory lungful of oxygen with every breath. The kitchen staff must account for the lower boiling point of water and the moisture-sucking effects of altitude on cookies and cakes.
“I tried not to have too many expectations about it, and let it be whatever it was,” Gentille says. “I think the hardest thing is the physical exhaustion.”
For Gentille, living in a collection of MASH-like tents called Jamesways proved to be the biggest challenge at first. Located away from the main station building in Summer Camp, as it’s called, requires a short trek to her warm kitchen. In the summer at the South Pole, that means trudging on uneven sastrugi at temperatures just south of 0 degrees Fahrenheit on the warmest day. In early November, when she first arrived, the wind chill dipped to minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow drifted into her room.
“I could never recuperate,” she says of those early weeks before the weather began to warm. “It was kind of tough at first, and it took me a while to get used to it, but friends helped me fix it up and now I love that room. It’s a real oasis.”
Still, cooking at the South Pole isn’t the toughest kitchen job Gentille has held. That trophy goes to catering film and commercial locations. She worked out of a kitchen a quarter the size she does now, and often around the clock. “There were a lot of divas as well,” she says. “Here people are so hungry and grateful to be fed.”
While Gentille has her plate full with a number of writing projects — including a book about her experiences in Europe — she may be back to help feed the hungry masses at Pole next year.
“I think the community is great,” she says. “Lots of really creative, talented people who have other things they do besides this, that are adventurous and incredibly interesting.”