Along with the outstanding landscapes and customer service, it was the quality of the food served aboard the Rocky Mountaineer that had travellers purring with pleasure following the two-day journey from Vancouver to Banff in western Canada.
At the beginning of May I travelled along the First Passage to the West, one of the four routes operated by the luxury train. We snaked along the Fraser Valley, saw snow-capped mountains towering above Kinbasket Lake and rose through spiral tunnels into the Canadian Rockies. Any chef who can serve food that isn’t eclipsed by that kind of scenery deserves plaudits.
This is Jean Pierre Guerin’s tenth season as one of the Rocky Mountaineer’s executive chefs. He travelled on the train on the first day of the journey, between Vancouver and Kamloops, setting aside time to be interviewed and to show me inside the galleys where meals are prepared.
“Cooking on board is not that difficult. But you have to take everything, including the kitchen sink,” said Jean Pierre as we sat down to talk.
No stopping for supplies
“As we move into the Rocky Mountains we don’t have the luxury of stopping for anything. We have to take two to three days’ worth of supplies. When I say supplies that’s not just the food but the expertise – the chefs have to travel with us, all of the food, and all of the beverages that we will need.
We generate all of our own power on board. We have a generator and our water supply. We are completely self-sufficient, meaning we can operate in a remote environment and serve the type of food people could expect if travelling in a city,” he added.
The presentation of the dishes in the GoldLeaf dining carriage was exquisite, catering to the high expectations of discerning travellers from around the world.
“You cannot make a mistake and forget anything. Also, you have to work extremely well-organised. Everything has a place and there’s a place for everything, as the good old saying goes,” he said.
“Everything has to be super well organised on board the train. You can’t have a messy kitchen. When you do your inventories on a morning you have to know where everything is and how many dozens of eggs, litres of cream and pounds of salmon or beef we have for the day.”
(Hearing this snippet of the interview playing from my laptop, my girlfriend couldn’t refrain from commenting that my enthusiastic but ultimately disorganised approach to cooking means I’d be no good in one of Jean Pierre’s kitchens.)
Two types of galley
“We have two types of galleys on board the train. They are quite small, compared to restaurant or hotel standards, but well-equipped. But coming from an airline background they are pretty big. The galleys on an aircraft are even smaller but you only have to rethermalise on an aircraft. On a train like the Rocky Mountaineer we do everything. The food you have been served today is cooked fresh onboard.
We try to use as much as possible the local food supplies. As the growing season comes on we will be using more and more the local British Columbia produce. Most of our protein, like seafood and meat products, is coming in from BC or Alberta,” explained Jean Pierre.
Half-a-million meals each year
The logistics of preparing food aboard the Rocky Mountaineer are impressive.
“In a season, we will send out around half-a-million plates. On an average train we have around 300 passengers. We will be doing 1,200 to 1,300 plates, including all of the appetisers, the main courses, the desserts and breakfasts.
You have to look at the number of movements we’ll be doing to manufacture that amount of meals. They all have to be consistent. So if you move from one galley to another you’ll see that the same thing happens at the same time
If you have a beautiful canyon or mountain, that has to be seen, it references us as to when we are going to serve that breakfast or lunch. It would defeat the object of travelling in such a beautiful area if we were to travel late in the day or by night. Everything happens on board with almost a military precision,” said Jean Pierre, about coordination and synchronisation that passengers tend to see as chance.
“About 90 per cent of the prep is done on the train. We have a commissary kitchen in Kamloops and we’ll do the stocks and the soups, and some pre-washing of vegetables, as we are limited in the amount of water we can take with us. That water is precious on the train,” he added.
A team of 90 chefs
“All together we have 90 chefs on the Rocky Mountaineer. They are not all travelling together. That takes into account days off and staffing the entire system. Each galley has three chefs. Today we have three in each of the three domed cars and two in the SilverLeaf cars — that’s considered a small train. We have trains where have 36 to 40 chefs travelling at once.
Each team of three, in the GoldLeaf domes, will serve up to 70 guests. It’s actually quite busy day,” he said, something that didn’t surprise me after seeing and tasting the quality of the meals.
“In SilverLeaf there’s a smaller galley. The food is fresh but you don’t have a choice of five items. There’s a choice of two. There’s no dining room, service is along the aisle on a rolling table to the seats. It’s like the trolleys that were in some First Class airlines during the 1990s. The chef makes the plate in front of the guest. It’s actually very elegant. The big difference between SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf is that you go down to the dining room for GoldLeaf dining,” said Jean Pierre about an aspect of the journey that I enjoyed because it provided opportunities to meet other guests.
Special dietary requirements on the Rocky Mountaineer
“The chefs have leeway in terms of preparing dishes for guests with special dietary conditions for health, religious or other reasons. There’s plenty of ingredients on board and they’ll do pretty much whatever needs to be done to please the guests. Since 2017 our menu has been converted to almost entirely gluten-free. We have so much demand for gluten-free that we have decided to get rid of the wheat items. If we can accommodate people we do,” he said.
“We travel to benchmark ourselves against cruise ships, other trains and restaurants. We like to provide food that is trendy, keeping in mind the environment we work in. At this moment in time we cannot grill, though we will be able to in the future. We are not allowed to use an open flame —that’s a Transport Canada regulation.
“We have electric stoves. They are just not as powerful as a gas range or induction. We have a new generation of car that will be in service in 2018 that will have induction and that will allow us to do more elaborate cooking. On the new cars we can grill — we can’t right now because of extraction. We don’t want our guests to be smoked!” he joked.
Kitchens with strict safety regulations
“Apart from the usual spillage that you’ll have in a kitchen we’ve not had any major disasters that have caused us to stop service. We have strict safety, so there’s not a whole lot of things that can go wrong. When working on a moving platform you have to be careful, especially when handling knives. You have to treat equipment with respect and anticipate what can happen.
We have strict regulations when it come cooking. Pots cannot be full for boiling. We can only fill them about half-way, so the water can slosh about. Deep frying is not allowed,” explained Jean Pierre about measures to ensure health and safety in the kitchen.
A new menu each season
“Every season we do a brand new menu. We work with our suppliers to see what’s on the market. When something is good, like the Alberta short ribs, we keep then on the menu. They are cooked in wine a long time – it’s comfort food that isn’t extremely original but I can’t tell you how many hundreds of thousands of portions we’ve served.
We’re not going to remove the winning items each year. We listen to our guests and take their feedback into consideration when developing the menus for the following year,” he said, prompting me to ask which dish is favourite among those on the menu at present. Every menu has a vegetarian option and a light choice. One is now always vegan.
“This year we have an albacore loin, a white tuna type. It has a very high fat content, lots of flavour and is fished off about 200km off the shore of British Columbia. It’s a very nice fish and there’s lots of them. That is my favourite this year. It is served with a crisp rice noodle and a sweet soy base. It has been cooked tataki style, surrounded by sesame seeds and raw in the middle.
The breakfast skillet is new. The spinach and feta souflee is in its second year. Unfortunately we can’t prepare omelettes — well, we can but only have four burners and it would take too long. We have to think about serving guests in a timely manner, as we have two sittings and we don’t want to be serving breakfast at noon,” said Jean Pierre, who rides the Rocky Mountaineer one or two days a week.
The prospect of doing that is something many travellers, especially those enthusiastic about food, would relish.
The Rocky Mountaineer runs on four separate routes. The Coastal Passage runs between Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. The Rainforest to Gold Rush route takes guests between Vancouver and Jasper via Whistler while The Journey Through the Clouds goes via Jasper. The First Passage to the West is between Vancouver and Banff. The journey is available in GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf classes of service. See the Rocky Mountaineer website, www.rockymountaineer.com (or call 0800 0606 7372, free of charge from the United Kingdom, or toll-free on +1-877-460-3200 from North America) for details of packages.
For 2018 a 10-day package is available for foodies. The First Passage to the West Culinary Exploration includes a culinary walking tour of Granville Island or Vancouver’s Chinatown plus a six-course wine-paired chef’s tasting menu at Eden Restaurant in The Rimrock Hotel in Banff.
Photos illustrating this feature are by Stuart Forster.
Declaration: Stuart travelled as a guest of the Rocky Mountaineer but had full editorial freedom in writing this post.