The thaw box mainly houses proteins, which can take a minimum of five days to thaw. As a result, culinary staff place meat orders on Thursday for menus that begin on Monday. There have been times when the thaw box drops below freezing and items don't thaw well. "We've had to use the water method in some cases, but this can be difficult with the volumes we work with, so we try to stay away from this as much as possible," Eanes says.
Finding ways to make this foodservice operation efficient is essential. Examples include ensuring food is ready to go when it's thawed and implementing equipment with energy-saving technology. With the lack of utility options, this is easier said than done. Four diesel generators run the entire station and utilize fuel that's received annually around the same time as the food delivery.
Given the extremely dry nature of Antarctica's climate, flames represent an even greater fire hazard than normal. As a result, McMurdo uses only electric foodservice equipment. "There is equipment we can't use, like char grills," Eanes says. "We utilize combi ovens for grilling. We also try to incorporate more efficient techniques, like sous vide, and using combi ovens and blast chillers to save on electricity and labor."
Although the kitchen still uses 6 30-year-old steam-jacketed kettles that the Navy installed years ago, the 2 combi ovens and 3 pressure tilt skillets added this year continue to get more use.
Energy savings is a big deal in this remote part of the world. McMurdo recently conducted an energy study comparing its old convection ovens to the new combis. "The combi ovens used 60 percent less electricity than the convection ovens," Eanes says. "Now I'm able to storyboard a 35-day menu and yield out equipment for a different production process."
The addition of three rapid cook ovens made the biggest impact on the operation. These ovens support McMurdo's new scratch pizza operation and have an 18-inch deck that allows the staff to produce as many as 120 16-inch pizzas per hour. "These units work as well as deck ovens and offer more capacity than needed to meet our demands," Eanes says. "Our pizza operation was so successful that when we first launched it, we were within a week of running out of pizza cheese."
Along with providing added efficiency and cost savings, the rapid cook ovens have allowed McMurdo to expand its menu even further. By adding the units to an unused corner of the servery, the station now offers both egg and Italian items, for example.
"Workers are consuming more than 100 16-inch pies in a 24-hour period on average," Eanes says. "These pizzas are a third of our production, but require less labor, energy and food costs compared with running the buffet. There also is less food waste, which is a big deal for us." Food quality also has improved with the addition of rapid speed and combi ovens, because McMurdo no longer needs to hold meal items for hours at a time in a hot box.
The rapid cook and combi ovens were not the only new items added to the equipment lineup. The use of clamshell griddles helped expand the menu variety by allowing McMurdo's culinary staff to offer burgers, chicken sandwiches and paninis, which are among its most popular items. Eanes and company plan to add a couple of upright combi ovens that can accommodate carts for bakery and savory food items. This would allow labor-free food production during the overnight hours.
Staying on top of equipment repairs for all of these units can be a challenge, as it can take a long time for parts to arrive. For this reason, the station keeps extra equipment parts on hand for quicker fixes. "I don't buy any equipment unless it's proven," Eanes says.
Labor savings is always a top priority at this isolated operation, since it is expensive to put a cook in the kitchen. "Any time I can negate the need for even one employee, I can save the program a lot of money," Eanes says. "There's also less water and electricity usage on base without an extra person."
McMurdo's next big project? Replacing its 30-year-old pot washer, which now acts as a heat sanitizer due to the lack of spray power. The pot room's flow also is being reconfigured to reduce labor. "The overall goal for McMurdo's foodservice program is to use technology and newer equipment to cut energy, labor and water usage," Eanes says.
By incorporating up-to-date equipment that is more efficient and flexible, the most remote place on earth has developed a morale boosting foodservice program for the many people it serves.