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The high life: cooking on Mount Everest

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Chef James Perry on Mount Everest (Photograph supplied)

Cooking pasta would normally be a painless exercise for an experienced chef like James Perry.

He has cooked on super yachts and in fine hotels and even taught at university level.

Simple meals suddenly became a lot more complicated when he spent two months earlier this year cooking at base camp on Mount Everest.

“We were 5,000 metres above sea level and water took 60 minutes to boil up there,” said the 48-year-old Bermudian.

Forget about making fresh bread to go along with the meal. “Bread just wouldn’t rise up there,” he said. “It was always a disaster.”

But still the former co-owner of now defunct Cafe Gio in St George, loved the challenge of cooking for elite climbers and staff.

“I am quite used to fine dining restaurants, but instead of being 15 chefs for 50 people, it was one chef for 70 people,” he said. “It was a totally different way of cooking.”

Mr Perry found that climbers sometimes did not have an appetite for carbohydrates after a long day of activity.

“They mostly wanted fresh vegetables,” he said. “You just have to make sure everything is well flavoured.”

Any vegetables had to be wrapped in blankets overnight to make sure they did not freeze and then rot.

Climbers who reached the summit, often came back to base camp with an inexplicable craving for sushi.

“So, we made sushi every time,” Mr Perry said.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have very much fresh fish in the Himalayas, so it would be smoked salmon or tuna. We’d have to improvise.”

Part of his job involved teaching the Sherpas who worked at base camp how to cook western food.

The men ranged in age from 16 to 30 and found western food a bit puzzling.

“Depending on how high they are from in the Himalayas, they have different varieties of food,” Mr Perry said.

“Most of them eat dal bhat, lentils, curry and rice, morning, noon and night, or potatoes. They have a very limited diet and everything is spiced with curry.

“We were teaching them everything from the basics, from cooking pasta to everything. Some of them had worked there before and had seen things like pasta, but they were always trying to make it taste more like dal bhat.

“You’d have to keep an eagle eye out to make sure no one would throw curry in the pasta. Or they would cook the spaghetti until it was like a purée.”

He said their work ethic was “brilliant”, despite being required to work from 5am to 8pm.

“They were always there smiling and laughing,” Mr Perry said.

He arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, in March to work for Adventure Consultants, having heard about the job through a work contact. He brought along warm clothes he had used during a stint cooking in the Antarctic, but expedition organisers threw most of them out. They were not warm enough for the Himalayas.

“In the Antarctic there’s usually a warm building you can step into when things get too cold,” Mr Perry said.

“There’s nothing like that on Mount Everest. You’re on your own. And most of what they had didn’t fit me. I’m 6ft 6in. Luckily, there were lots of factories around and they made up new puffy jackets and pants for me.”

For the ten-day climb to base camp he had to use an oxygen mask.

“I was really sick for the first couple of days,” he said. “But then I acclimatised.”

Not only was there extreme cold on the mountain, but frequent wind storms.

“One storm came in the middle of the night,” he said. “You could feel the tent just about laid down flat and the corners of the tent were coming up.”

The tent broke and he was moved to another one the next day when the wind died down.

All food had to be carried up the mountain by porters.

“I am not sure how many pounds of food had to be carried up, but it was amazing what was brought up,” he said.

“There was fresh roasted coffee from New Zealand and products from America, since many of our clients were American.”

He forgot to bring vegetable scrapers and wooden spoons to stir the pots.

“There were always helicopters going up and down the mountain,” he said.

“Sometimes they would come in to pick up someone in an emergency. When you found out they were coming, you tried to fill the helicopter with the things you needed. So, I had wooden spoons brought in by helicopter.”

He felt a mixture of feelings when the job ended in June.

“On one hand, I was happy at the thought of being able to breathe again!” he said.

“To be able to switch on a light switch or even just have the ability to be warm without having a hundred layers of clothing.

“On the other hand, it was really hard, the place and the mountains were so awe inspiring and the Sherpas and the other staff were amazing and we quickly developed quite strong bonds.”

He trained at the Bermuda College and left the island when he was 21 searching for adventure.

“I thought I would work in restaurants and see one or two countries and come home,” he said. But it did not work out that way. “There was always another country to see and then another.”

Mr Perry cut his teeth in restaurants in the German alps. He worked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship for a while then started working on super yachts.

Later, he taught in a polytechnic in New Zealand for several years.

He was back in Bermuda this month for a visit, then flew on to Alghero, Sardinia, Italy, where he is studying the food for the rest of the summer.

“Sardinian food is very set in stone,” he said.

“For 2,000 years it has been exactly the same. The pasta is different from the rest of Italy. Everything is handmade and handcrafted. I’ve been learning the different ways of cooking there.”

He is not sure what his next move will be when the summer ends.

“I have New Zealand residency,” he said. “But it would also be lovely to come back to Bermuda.”

Chef James Perry with a sherpa student on Mount Everest (Photograph supplied)