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Interview with Gaëlle Hubert (cook)

Gaëlle Hubert, one of Alain's daughters, is a Sociologist doing a PhD in European Studies in the Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis. Although her father has been doing expeditions to the poles for years, this was the first time she's even been to Antarctica. During the first two months of BELARE 2007-08 Gaëlle was in charge of feeding hungry workers in the mess tent at Utsteinen before her sister Emile and her boyfriend Geoffroy took over the job.

Being a doctoral student, one might think it's easy for you to take a few months off to go to the Antarctic.

Being a researcher means working by objectives, which involves more than just working "8 hours a day." I worked quite a lot during the months before I left to Antarctica in order to have the possibility to leave for two months.

How did you get the job of being in charge of the mess tent during BELARE 2007-08?

My father asked me and my sister to come (she came during the second half of the expedition with her boyfriend Geoffroy). It was an opportunity for him to share this part of his life with us and allow us to discover his passion firsthand. Of course he knew we both cooked quite often and that we could adapt to such an environment.

Did you ever have training as a cook or are you just naturally gifted? Members of the expedition continue to comment about how great the food was.

Our mother is a really good cook. We've been used to cooking for a long time. As mentioned above, I like cooking at home (at least when I have time to do so...), and Emilie and Geoffroy are used to cooking for large groups. They actually had to deal with a larger group than mine: 37 people for them against 23 people for me during the first two months. Since I was alone during the first part of the expedition, Manaram, my father's Nepalese friend, helped out.

What were your thoughts about being able to participate in such a historic expedition with your father?

I was pretty excited to go there, especially to have a look at the natural environment and the wide open spaces there. I realised how lucky I was, but I had no idea what such an expedition would be like. I must confess that before leaving I was a bit afraid of the living conditions we were about to face, but it turned out to be more comfortable than expected, above all for the cooks. We had a large and heated mess tent. The weather was quite delightful in November and December - sometimes too delightful actually! I appreciated the few storms we had. In February (unfortunately I was gone by that time), the weather was much worse and 5 tents were damaged.

Did it take you some time to adapt to the conditions in the Antarctic?

Actually, it came naturally and very rapidly. It became more difficult for me towards the end of my stay. I was quite tired of the constant light - during the summer, the sun never goes down there. It just disappears for 3 hours behind Utsteinen ridge.

Were you preparing food all the time or did you have other responsibilities as well?

The cooks had the responsibility over the food as a whole. Cooking was only the tip of the iceberg. For three months prior to departure, we had to calculate the amount and type of food we'd need to feed an average of 30 people over 4 months. It's is a big deal! What's more, we had to think about utensils, pots and pans and other equipment for such a kitchen. Once in Antarctica, we had to take inventory every time a plane supplied us with more food. And of course I also had to keep everything in order in the mess tent, which is a challenge when you have to deal with a large group of men!

Is there anything unique about running a mess tent on an Antarctic expedition?

Going to Antarctica and being part of such a project is really something. But running a mess tent over there is like running a mess tent for a group anywhere in the world. Some days you're so busy that you hardly remember that you're in Antarctica! Then you look through the window, you see Utsteinen, and remember where you are. During the second part of the expedition, it was even harder for the cooks because due to the work schedule, workers had to eat in shifts. What was unique, however, was the atmosphere during the meal. Everybody enjoyed it and we had lots of laughs.

Were you at all limited in what you could prepare?

I've never cooked under such good conditions. We were very well-equipped. Vegetables, meat and fish were frozen, but every time we had a flight from Cape Town (every two or three weeks at the beginning), we were supplied with fresh food. The most difficult ingredients to deal with were eggs, which came in five-litre boxes with the white and yolk separated. We had to organise things so that the food had thawed by the time you had to cook it.

We'd prepare things like chili con carne, lamb stew, steak and French fries, every kind of pasta (spaghetti bolognaise was the most popular), salmon and vegetables, curry chicken (prepared by my dad's Nepalese friend Manaram). We even had desserts such as chocolate truffles and cakes!

How comfortable can you possibly make a mess tent in the Antarctic?

The mess tent was already built and equipped when I arrived: the way the guys did it counts a lot in the comfort we had. What's more, as already mentioned, this tent was heated. My role was to create an atmosphere where each one could feel like "at home" after working long hours outside.

How did your rapport with the workers develop during your stay?

I was the cook, and the only woman on the team for a month. So that was quite special! I had known certain members of the team for a long time, since there were friends of my father (or of mine). Regarding the others, we got on well. It was easier that we were only 23 at the beginning. It's a good number to socialise with so can get to know each other. The mess tent was "the place to be" after working outdoors all day. Not only were the guys hungry, but they liked having a warm place where they could hang out.

How did your rapport with the workers develop during your stay?

I was the cook, and the only woman on the team for a month. So that was quite special! I had known certain members of the team for a long time, since there were friends of my father (or of mine). As for the others, we got on well. We had a lot of fun together. The mess tent was "the place to be" after working outdoors all day. Not only were the guys hungry, but they liked having a warm place where they could hang out.

Did you ever hold any special events at the mess tent?

We celebrated every birthday ... Mine was celebrated too and for that occasion, two guys from the army and a friend cooked for me the whole day! We also prepared a special meal for Christmas and organised a fancy-dress party for New Year's. The sixth of December the team was spoiled by Saint-Nicolas with sweets, chocolate cakes and other special goodies.

Did you ever get a chance to take part in other activities outside of running the mess tent (at least get out for a walk every so often)?

I was quite lucky in this regard, because even though the first part was technically the most difficult part of the expedition, the team had from time to time free period to spend, especially after mid-December, as they had finished a head of schedule and had become "technically unemployed."

How was it when the time came to hand the reins over to your sister?

It wasn't a problem at all because we did it progressively. My sister arrived earlier than her boyfriend Geoffroy. We spent almost three weeks together, which I appreciated since eleven new people had arrived on Christmas day. When leaving in mid-January, I was really glad for the new team. Of course, I had become somehow attached to my role in the group so it wasn't easy to leave. I had become attached to the place, the people and the building of the station.

Are there any moments from the expedition that you'll remember with particular fondness for the rest of your life?

I can mention a few moments in particular. Firstly, landing in Antarctica with the Illiouchin, I really felt like I was part of something unusual in a seemingly otherworldly place. Secondly, there was the landing at Utsteinen. This place is really, really special. To the south, it's completely white and flat, and to the North there are these huge mountains. In the middle, there was the little ridge and the base camp, in the middle of nowhere. Wonderful. Thirdly, there was the trip to the coast and the coast itself. I'm so sad I didn't see penguins, but the icebergs, especially the ones in Crown Bay, are really magnificent. And then, there was the cemetery of the 100 containers, the only colours visible all around. We also had several walks in the area I'll remember for a long time.

Was there any experience or experiences during the expedition that changed your perspective on life, the planet, the environment, or anything else?

It's the combination of 3 parameters which changed my perspective of life: the beauty of Nature, the vision of such an extraordinary project and the friendship created amongst members of the team. These three parameters were like "wings" that helped me embrace life once I got back to Belgium.

Do you think you might ever find your way back to Antarctica one day?

I remember my father telling me that once you go to Antarctica, you become addicted. He's definitely right. There is only one thing that could prevent me from going on such an expedition again, which is having a child!

Author: IPF

Picture: Ga - © International Polar Foundation

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