Svalbard is an archipelago at the northernmost point of Norway. It is home to polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes, and walrus. Whalers from Portugal first hunted here in the 15th century to render valuable whale oil, walrus tusks, and arctic fox pelts, nearly destroying the populations. The village of Longyearbyen was established in the early 1900s by an American mining company for the rich deposits of coal. Today, tourists come to see the polar bears as they hunt for seals on the sea ice or dog sled over the harsh landscape while reindeer forage and the occasional fox darts past. I am here to visit The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The vault is a bunker built deep into the side of this frozen landscape. It contains over 10,000 years of plant history from around the world. Preservationists catalog their seeds in this global library of biodiversity. Breeders rely on its diversity as climate change impacts crops around the world. Farmers depend on these seed savers to bring new varieties to the market. As a chef, I depend on this chain to help grow ingredients that keep me inspired so my diners never lose interest in the magic of food.
The vault emerges from the massive mountain face. It looks smaller than in photos. As we approach, bundled in borrowed arctic snowsuits, the vault stands as a beacon of optimism. Its concrete foundation glows with prisms of light from the mirrors set into the concrete mass. As I walk up to the now-massive vault, I stop in front of the steel bomb proof doors. The vault is restricted to those with purpose. Like Fort Knox, the contents are too valuable to allow tourists. Tomorrow seedbanks from 32 countries will deposit rare seeds into the vault. The largest deposit since construction. I’m most excited about the black maize from Cherokee Nation. Only the depositors, Crop Trust and Nordgen officials will be permitted in the vault.
Cold after an hour outside we head to Huset Restaurant to meet chef Sean Derwin in preparation for the high-level dinner with Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway. Chef Derwin greets us in the dining room still bundled from his run to the docks. Much has to come in from the mainland. He is stressed. Only part of his order arrived for tomorrow’s dinner.
In the kitchen, the small team works precisely. A jolly bunch, we quickly engage in cook’s banter. I am instantly relaxed in this environment. The bond formed over long days and shared passion is present in this team. They joke at each other’s expense. Each share in detail what they are working on. As we build trust the young sous chef shares his near-death encounter with a polar bear last month. Unbelievably, he stood as the bear passed holding his phone to capture a video. All agreed he was lucky the bear ignored him. They rarely do.
For such a rustic place the food in Svalbard is remarkable. Reindeer stew, mashed potatoes, and lingonberries provide comfort by the fire after a day in the cold. Local beer enjoyed sparingly by locals. An alcohol rations card is given out each month. A nostalgic carryover from mining days.
I often pinch myself in these moments. How did I get here? A chef from the US in a group of plant scientists, ministers, UN officials and leaders of nations.
The truth is that chefs sit at the center of the food system. We serve as curators of culinary culture. Conduits between supply chain and consumer demand. This intimacy with ingredients and language of deliciousness with those who share our table helps relatability. We meet people where they are, guiding them gently through new food discoveries.
I return home full of hope and inspiration. Excited to plant my fields in Maiden Creek with unique heirlooms. I ordered autumn crocuses for saffron from Lancaster before leaving the Longyearbyen airport. Hannes and I planned for rare plantings at Pocono Organics in preparation for a Food Forever experience in September. I stirred my creative juices for the Cohere food lab this spring.
My trip to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will live in future recipes, plantings, gatherings and consulting. I have made a pledge to promote the value of biodiversity in our food system in microdoses of deliciousness. Please join me. I will save you all a seat at the table.