Embracing Discomfort, Working for the United States Antarctic Program with James Graham


After a lifelong obsession with Antarctica and the heroic age of exploration James Graham finally gave himself permission to apply to the United States Antarctic Program. Having had a very successful career as a chef and restaurateur, he was hired for a six month contract at McMurdo Station as production cook, a job designed for a 19 year old Navy man, and he would be turning 60 while there.


James describes himself as “the least outdoorsy person he knows” and says he “lives a very comfortable life in Los Angeles where he gets by on his professional reputation.” James knew it was going to be a challenge. He gave himself the test to see if he could do the job physically, and  if he could fit in socially and professionally. James admits he doesn’t really like being cold and enjoys his privacy and autonomy, but now he was going to be sharing a room with a stranger in an uncomfortable barracks on a Navy base. Even with decades of experience, he was insecure and had a bit of an imposter complex, and every one of his cohorts FB pages seemed as outdoorsy as Shackelton! James felt he was going to be an outsider at best, and an old weirdo at worst.




What James found when he got there was so much better than what he had imagined. It was so much more fun, interesting, and exciting than he had expected. At times it was way more uncomfortable than he had expected, but that made the moments of comfort and fun all the more luxurious. James survived obviously, and he was accepted by the amazing community of adventurous, curious, hardworking, creative people that are all willing to endure discomfort to have this shared experience in this amazing environment. He was invited back and last winter during his second tour at McMurdo station James really felt that he was welcomed into the community of contract workers. His co-workers there offered him jobs in Alaska, National Parks, and other research Stations.  James quickly learned  that the labor was just the price of admission, and no one is judged by the job that they do, but by what they bring to the community. There were janitors with PHDs, and chefs with michelin stars and no one cared about that. They did care how you were at karaoke though and how much you helped and volunteered.  As an unexpected bonus, James got very good at fixing snowmobiles.


Originally from Brooklyn, New York, James went to High School in Times Square and trained as a chef at the Four Seasons Restaurant. James was part of Anthony Bourdain’s original Kitchen Confidential team where he and Bourdain worked together for many years at several different chi chi spots in Manhattan. Burning out on the exhausting lifestyle, he moved to Tucson AZ to go to art school, there he met his wife Julia and together they opened a 24 hour 7 day college town diner that was a hit from day one. After 8 years of running that and other projects they moved to Los Angeles where James built and ran his dream restaurant project and helped many others with their food business start ups. James will be returning to Antarctica this January. 

This program was organized by Casey Sheppard.