The Ghan: How food is prepared on a passenger train
Bring me a crocodile sausage … and make it snappy! It sounds like a line from an ancient Marx Brothers movie. But it is, in fact, a most reasonable request for platinum-class passengers travelling between Darwin and Adelaide on The Ghan. As the train's senior "Chef de Partie" Joseph Cobiac, who devised the dish and many others, explains in the day's menu notes, the crocodile has "long been a Northern Territory bushfood".
Served as boudin blanc (white sausage), on potato puree with a lemon aspen sauce and sea blite, it makes an appetising and, as important, appropriate entree for guests making the historic 2949-kilometre journey through central Australia. "We try whenever possible to devise and serve food which is 'of the place' – of the countryside we travel through. Meals which have a history behind them, which have a small story to share with our guests."
Menus for the luxury four-day, three-night adventure provide daily confirmations of the chef's policy. They include saltwater barramundi – a name derived from an Aboriginal word meaning "large-scaled silver fish", served with fennel puree, baby spinach and lemon oil.
Panang-style, mild buffalo curry, in recognition of the beefy-tasting meat from an animal first introduced to northern Australia in the 1820s. And apricots, which recall the enjoyment of the fruit, fresh or dried, by the Afghan or "Ghan", camel caravaners who worked in outback Australia from the 1860s.
* The kitchen where 58 million plane meals are cooked
* 10 of the greatest rail journeys in the world
* Roos are Ghan, Ghan, Ghan - except for dinner
Devising, and sourcing new and old favourites, is only part of the daily miracle of providing three meals, for up to four days, to more than 300 hungry guests – taking the great train up and down, back and forth across Australia.
"I really wouldn't want to be doing anything else," says Cobiac, who has worked on the Great Southern Railway for more than 20 years, devising menus, trying, testing dishes, ordering food deliveries and organising staff.
"It's a dream job," he says, cheerfully revealing that on days off he happily cooks meals for him and his wife. "I can't help myself. I just love cooking," he says, adding that some new dishes undergo six months of trials before being passed food fit for The Ghan.
Some ingredients, some side-dishes – such as small, complicated, time-consuming juices and dressings, for example – may be mixed "back at base" and carried on board. But most of the food must, for freshness-sake, be prepared and cooked on the train. It is no easy task. The train ride can be surprisingly bumpy in places, the kitchens of "limited cat-swinging dimensions" and the daily rush to prepare "special requirement" and instant "a la carte" orders challenging.
"So, this is where it all happens," says our on-board chef Sam Markham, emerging, it seems, from a giant refrigerator, proudly unveiling trays of 500 newly made canapes for instant consumption. A friendly, unflappable man, whose wife Laura also works on the train, knows the importance of forward planning.
Markham's kitchen, which he shares with two other staff, Liz and Tim, is half a carriage long, and one of three on the 912 metre-long train. Each contains two stand-up fridges and a larger cool room, a flat top grill, two electric ovens and a six-burner electric top.
Markham and his on-board cooking team of 12 can work anything up to 17 hours on days when they must cater for all three meals. Every trip they have one evening off, when dinner is eaten off the train, at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve.
Here, guests enjoy a scrumptious, outdoor barbecue, prepared by local cooks, under a panoply of twinkling stars. It finishes late. Back on planet Earth, Sam has just a few more hours' sleep before he must wake and prepare next day's brunch.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism NT and The Ghan. See greatsouthernrail.com.au
FOOD IN NUMBERS*
BREAD 198 loaves
MILK 240 x 2 litre containers
EGGS 300 cartons
ORANGE JUICE 240 litres
BARRAMUNDI 50 kilograms
BROCCOLINI 185 bunches
TOMATOES 69 kilograms
LEMON MERINGUES 352
LEMONS 16 kilograms
ORANGES 11 kilograms
ROCK MELONS 11
CHEESE 60 blocks
*Typical supplies needed per journey