Rocky Mountaineer, Canada: How to run a restaurant on rails
Leaning against the steel bench in one of eight galleys on Canada's luxury locomotive Rocky Mountaineer, chef Jean Pierre Guerin reveals he's never completely satisfied with the food served by his 90-person team. That's because the man who's prepared meals for the likes of Bill Clinton and Lady Diana is on a perpetual quest to raise the cuisine's already excellent standard via innovation, creativity and an evolving menu.
As the train chugs across stretches of the prettiest parts of British Columbia and Alberta (picture gushing waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, the deepest of blue rivers and ubiquitous wildlife), Guerin, having accrued years of cooking nous in the aviation industry and at five-star hotels, spends his days mapping out how to best prepare and serve memorable meals for upwards of 550 passengers per trip.
The galleys are one-person-wide slivers of space, peppered with chefs cooking and plating the quality, fresh, pre-cut ingredients. (Just imagine the perils of trying to fillet an enormous fresh salmon in the confines of an area with near-zero elbow room). The vegetables are pre-washed to economise on limited water reserves on board and the stoves are state-of-the-art custom built.
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The menu is impressive, considering the limitations on space and the constant motion of the train, and service must be a synchronised operation. Breakfast includes a vast selection of tweaked favourites. These include the Fraser Valley eggs and cream cheese scrambled and wrapped in a crispy spring roll (Scrambled egg crisp) or the two poached eggs and Montreal-style smoked beef stacked on a toasted English muffin with tarragon scented hollandaise – a gorgeous twist on eggs benedict.
And the newly-added must-have Cranberry Apple French Toast made with pan-fried cranberry and apple baguette, drizzled with maple cream and served with roasted almond and honey syrup. Even a simple stove-top oatmeal is a standout served with brown sugar and fresh berries.
Guerin has coined an adage for those travelling on the Rocky Mountaineer – "It's not catering. It's a restaurant." Then comes lunch with a further assortment of meals to delight and satisfy. There's delicately seared Albacore tuna loin for the Rocky Mountaineer signature Tuna Nicoise salad. Alberta beef short ribs in Okanagan Valley Merlot accompanied by whipped garlic potatoes and local market vegetables can't be removed from the menu for fear of a riot. And Guerin's burger pride and joy: a mouth-watering, eight-ounce Canadian Angus beef patty with light mesquite seasoning, stacked in a toasted pretzel bun with sliced portobello mushrooms and smoked Canadian cheddar with house-made ketchup and a crunchy slaw. Excellent train-riding sustenance.
Each bi-level carriage (in the GoldLeaf coach), with its magnificent and superbly practical glass-domed roof, has about 34 guests and a cluster of hosts to handle all manner of requests and assist with wildlife spotting. As the fluffiest of warm cinnamon scones with Okanagan berry jam are served, you may hear yelped alerts such as, "look there's a moose" or "bear to the left".
Following host introductions, there's a toast to a fun trip with raised glasses of non-alcoholic peach bubbly before settling in to wide leather seats with ample leg room, fold-out table and foot rest. For those battling cigarette cravings, Nicorette gum is supplied on demand.
There are hot towels brought to passengers before each meal and promises of delicacies and delights throughout the day. Local wines are poured by the affable staff with affection and a stream of insights. The Sumac Ridge Estate Unoaked Chardonnay is slightly off-dry with aromas of pear and apple. While the full bodied yet velvety smooth Jackson-Triggs Reserve Select Cabernet Sauvignon has bold scents of blueberry, mocha and chocolate.
Guerin admits to knowing little about beer, with just three on offer: Whistler Brewing Powder Mountain Lager, Whistler Brewing Whiskey Jack Ale, Molson Canadian 67 Light Lager. While Tanqueray London Dry Gin, Ketel One Vodka and Crown Royal Deluxe Canadian Whisky are also in the mix.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
Host Peter Southall, who only expected to stay on board for a season but has racked up several, explains that he likes to find solutions for passengers. So when a woman asked for an espresso coffee, (there's neither a barista nor espresso-making equipment) he suggested a "Baileys and cream long (filtered) coffee". Hosts are at the beck and call of travellers, who on a whim can summon a tray of cheese, dried fruits, chocolates and assorted nuts and of course, any reasonable and legal amount of drinks.
Punctuating most trips are the tearful goodbyes when travellers wrench themselves from the unique environment and service of the Rocky Mountaineer. You may also see Guerin waving farewell from a vestibule (carriage outdoor-viewing area) – in his chef whites and wearing the satisfied grin of a culinary master, with big plans to build and install new galleys by 2019.
TRAIN TRIP TIPS:
- Always use a napkin underneath your glass to prevent your drink from sliding off your fold-out tray.
- Use the amenities outside peak times (which are just before or after meal service) or face significant queues.
- Be prepared for lengthy stops as train protocol, such as which locomotive has right of way on the tracks, is observed.
- Have your camera/video ready at all times to snap stunning scenery, as opportunities can flit by.
- Pack everything you need for the entire day – since you won't see your luggage until the hotel check-in each night.
- Accept that the experience is partly about the exceptional views and partly about fine dining/ drinking. Prepare to pack on a couple of kilos.
FIVE OTHER LUXE TRAIN TRIPS
- Eastern and Oriental Express. It's considered a stylish way to see some of south-east Asia's rainforests, hillsides, temples, rubber plantations and remote towns. You travel between Singapore and Bangkok in compartments that each have an en suite.
- Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. An iconic rail journey best known for its London, Paris and Venice route but can also include Krakow, Rome and Prague. The finest French silverware and crystal make for unforgettable meals.
- Golden Eagle. The only full en suite private train through Russia and travelling into Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A fascinating route to extraordinary locations.
- Belmond Grand Hibernian. The exceptional new rail experience through Ireland launched in August. Only 40 guests can travel on the lavish locomotive that visits castles, whiskey distilleries and vibrant cities.
- Blue train. There's a personalised butler service through breathtaking places across the South African countryside from Pretoria to Cape Town. The train has on-board entertainment and exquisite lounges.
Rocky Mountaineer has several route options including "Journey through the Clouds" – Vancouver to Kamloops to Jasper. Travel season is between April and October. See rockymountaineer.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Rocky Mountaineer.