With opulent ocean liners running aground and airplane travel anything but luxurious, travellers are turning to the good old days of classic train travel, with a field-to-track twist.
It is now possible to plunk down $7,000 for a first-class, 12-day circular trip from Vancouver passing through Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper on Armstrong Group’s Rocky Mountaineer, which includes three-course, à la carte menus offering local specialties such as Alberta pork tenderloin with market vegetables and wild B.C. sockeye salmon—all served in a rolling restaurant charging through Canada’s rugged West.
“Preparing fresh gourmet meals in a confined, constantly moving space can be challenging,” says chef Jean Pierre Guerin, who has cooked at five-star hotels and restaurants around the world. “But learning how to work with your team in tandem with the sway of the rails is key to successfully preparing and plating our culinary creations.” One signature dish, slow-cooked Alberta beef short ribs in an Okanagan Valley Merlot, is “comfort food at its best,” he says.
Even the meals on shorter trips receive rave reviews, including kudos from Ned Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, who recently took the 3½-hour morning train from Vancouver to Whistler with his wife, Kate, and son, Max. “They’re trying to give a real authentic and local feel to the food,” he says, recounting the hot-from-the-griddle pancakes from the kiddie menu and yogourt parfaits with granola and B.C. blueberries. These were followed by a smoked-salmon frittata served on cedar paper, with local tomatoes and crisp potato rosti. “All things considered, it was an excellent meal.”
A new gastronomical “rail cruise” in the Charlevoix region east of Quebec City features local cheeses, duck, organic chicken and pork, honey, and even cider made from apples grown in an orchard on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. In the evenings, local-inspired tapas such as duck confit with Charlevoix oyster mushrooms are enjoyed by eight cars of passengers as they wind around the shores of the river. The locavore train is the brainchild of Cirque de Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier, chairman of the board at Le Massif de Charlevoix, which owns and operates Le Train, the Hôtel la Ferme at Baie-Saint-Paul, Que., and a ski resort called Le Mountain.
“It is a very complex process to get good food on the train,” allows chef Patrick Turcot, who cooks and plates the meals with his brigade at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie, one of the stops for the foodie train. “The difference for us is that we’re using a Rational oven.” Each of the eight railcars has one of the $30,000 cooking units, which combines the wet heat of a steamer with the dry heat of a convection oven. The prepared plates are loaded into the oven on the train, and eight minutes later they are perfectly reheated. Even Via Rail has overhauled its menus as part of a $22-million modernization of railcars on its four-day Toronto-to-Vancouver run. The food has always been good, “but this time we decided to make it fun,” says Lynn Lefebvre, product manager for long-haul services.
In December, eight on-board chefs were asked to create contemporary dishes inspired by the regions they usually travel through. Two days and 78 recipes later, impressive new menu items were born, from berry-stuffed French toast to pickerel with a horseradish-panko crust and classic sauce ravigote. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel—we refined the dishes in terms of plating and flavours,” she explains. All of Via’s beef, chicken, and veal are Canadian-raised, and the new menu often features seasonal surprises, like a dessert featuring Saskatoon berries. “We were always good with the competition,” says Lefebvre. “Now they’ll have to compete with us.”
The chef of the Rocky Mountaineer says the grandeur of the Rockies puts the challenge of cooking in a moving restaurant into perspective. “We do have moments where we can step on board the vestibule and enjoy the stunning scenery,” says Guerin. “No matter how many times we travel on the train, we never get tired of the views.”