Feeding the masses

A small croquembouche topped with spun caramel.
A croquembouche made by Rebecca for one of the crew’s birthdays (Photo: Rebecca Lee)
Chef standing over a steaming pot.Chef chopping pumpkinExpeditioner helping themselves to salads from a buffet.
Tuesday 6 November

Good food is one of the best ways to keep up morale on a ship, especially one that is temporarily beset in the ice. Here on the Aurora Australis we have three cooks – the Chief Cook, Second Cook and Third Cook who, along with the stewards, work hard to bring us three meals a day as well as morning and afternoon snacks. The results are a far cry from the pemmicam, ship’s biscuits and penguin stew 'enjoyed' by the early Antarctic explorers.

Second Cook, Rebecca Lee, has been working with P&O Maritime Services for seven years and this is her third trip on the Aurora Australis.  Her typical day begins by helping to prepare breakfast, which includes cereals, fruit, eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns and a variety of other hot food. She then cooks any scones, muffins or biscuits that she has planned for morning tea. Next she chops up the vegetables that will accompany the main lunch course. After an afternoon break, she’ll begin the vegetable preparation for dinner and make dessert.

“The three cooks have different responsibilities but we’re not tied into doing one thing,” Rebecca says.

“We help each other out when we can, which makes it more interesting and spreads the load.”

While each voyage usually has the same cuts of meat and other food items, it’s up to the cooks to create new and favourite dishes. Rebecca trawls through magazines, cook books and the internet for recipe ideas to keep things interesting for both her and the diners.

“There are dishes you do all the time because people love them, like lasagne, fillet mignon, curries and parmigiana, but it’s good to try out new things on a captive audience. You soon know if it’s been a success or not,” she says.

Rebecca completed her apprenticeship as a chef in Sydney in the late 1990s, working in the London Hotel in Balmain and other restaurants. After moving to Western Australia she worked at a mine site, catering for about 100 miners, and at a production kitchen, cooking food for department store cafes such as Myer. She completed a sea safety course (STCW95) in between jobs and finally landed her first job at sea – working on a dive support vessel. Here she spent seven weeks as the ship’s baker.

Shortly after that job finished she began work with P&O and has worked on the Southern Supporter, which conducts offshore seismic surveys for oil and gas companies, and the CSIRO research vessel Southern Surveyor. These ships carry fewer passengers than the Aurora Australis but Rebecca says the only real difference in the work environment is the galley setup and the preparation time.

She says one of the hardest parts of the job is working in a rolling sea for days at a time.

“It takes longer to do everything because you have to put down slip mats and you can only carry one thing at a time because you need a free hand to hang on. Every fruit and vegetable seems to be round so you have to put them in containers so they don’t roll away and you have to be able to open doors and juggle containers without things falling. And you can’t cook cakes in the oven because they come out crooked.”

It goes without saying then that patience, flexibility and a sense of humour are important personal traits for the job.

So I have to ask the question about how much food we have for a protracted stay in the ice. Rebecca’s answer is a comfort.

“There’s a container of emergency rations with dried foods such as chick peas, mashed potato, rice and fruit – staple things that would give us the proteins and carbohydrates we’d need to survive. We also have a lot of meat in the freezer. So we’d have to be stuck for a long time to run out of food.”