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Chef survived in temperatures of -55C when Antarctic outpost lost power

Hull Live logo Hull Live 19/07/2022 Deborah Hall

Where it was once Hairy Bikers it is now hairy moments for an adventurous East Yorkshireman – and that’s not a reference to the full beard ("I’m channelling Gandalf") he sports these days.

On the day I visited Gerard Baker he was engaged in the relatively safe activity of decorating his family's self-catering holiday cottage in Roos. Pointing out his choice of paint colour from the accidental daubs on his clothing, Gerard regaled me with tales of surviving minus -35°C indoor temperatures when he was with the British Antarctic Survey team and being the rifle-armed guide for people wanting to see polar bears in Greenland.

The last time I met Gerard, over a decade ago, it was to talk about much gentler pursuits such as being the food historian for the Hairy Bikers on their Mums Know Best series, beekeeping, cooking with produce fresh from his Holderness garden, and picking up litter and helping to plant trees and snowdrops in his village.

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The former Withernsea High School head boy – who once bunked off for a day to join the Greenham Common protest in the 1980s – spent a number of years working as a chef for explorers making record attempts in the Antarctic, which is when he discovered that whale breath smells of cabbages and that penguins en masse are particularly pongy creatures.

Those early experiences and others since of living on an ice peninsula for months if not years at a time have prepared Gerard for his latest endeavour – running his own expedition company. Tour guests can revel in the glacial landscapes of Svalbard in the land of the midnight sun and search out whales and walruses as well as polar bears and migratory birds.

Gerard Baker takes people to see polar bears and other wildlife in their natural habitats © Gerard Baker Gerard Baker takes people to see polar bears and other wildlife in their natural habitats

Those looking for adventure in somewhat warmer climes might take Michelin-trained chef Gerard up on his offer of a cultural tour of Marrakech with a visit to a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, a feast for all the senses, according to the author and documentary maker, who has formed Arctic Tern Expeditions (ATE).

"Me and 13 other guys were at the Halley Research Station on a floating ice shelf, completely isolated," said Gerard, of a two-and-a-half-year stint with the British Antarctic Survey. "At that point, I was cooking for the team and we lost power for about six weeks in the second winter there."

He recalled: "It was minus -55°C outside and it was -35°C inside the building, with no lighting or heating. We were fortunate in having a good generator mechanic and electrician and they managed to repair the generator. We were 800km from the nearest people on the planet and we couldn’t have got to them anyway because of the crevasses and sea in between."

His experience led to work with other companies, including Noble Caledonia on its Antarctic cruises, and Gerard became certified as a senior polar guide and is an ambassador for the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. The pandemic disrupted Gerard’s plans for developing ATE but gave him chance to do more writing, studying, catering, and thinking about how to future-proof his company.

He said: "Working with people on expeditions is not so different from working in hospitality. You are looking to give people the best experience you can. Making connections with people is so satisfying and it is about giving them the experiences they won’t get anywhere else.

"I think for me one of the best things is seeing animals in their natural habitat, that’s really special. One of my favourite recollections is when I was driving a Zodiak (inflatable boat) in the Norwegian Arctic with a photographer and just a couple of cruise guests on board."

Gerard Baker on Alexander Island, Antarctica © Gerard Baker Gerard Baker on Alexander Island, Antarctica

He added: "We were the last people out and we’d seen a mother polar bear and her two cubs halfway up a valley. There was another female on the shore where there was a dead walrus right on the beach edge – 1,500kg of walrus is a big dinner – and we thought we’d sit and watch what happened, but not so close that we would disturb them.

"The mother with the cubs came down the beach and there was a stand-off between the females. We could see and hear the bluff exchanges between the bears as they gradually settled into a negotiation. You could hear their roars and see their breath, it was an amazing thing to witness.

"You take people to see all of this, to see how the environment is changing and how this impacts the wildlife, and it’s so important because you hope they will effect change in their own lives."

Gerard, who suggested Burton Agnes Hall, near Driffield, as the backdrop for the Hairy Bikers’ 2010 Mums Know Best Christmas special, is a huge fan of the Hull and East Yorkshire area and loves the chance to return to Roos when he can. The holiday cottage that he "rebuilt from the ground up" was his grandfather’s joiner’s shop when Gerard was young. One of the "beams" inside is actually a ship's mast and the treads on the stairs came from a nunnery in Hull.

"I had a Shetland pony called Jemima when I was young and we used to head off to Tunstall for hours and hours without a worry," he said. "My family’s been in Roos since about the 1300s.

"As long as I can still travel and work, I will do. I want to be able to make the decision myself on whether I ever return to a place. I do think that I don’t want to be anywhere cold when I retire, though!"

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