Planes, trains, automobiles: chef Jean Pierre Guerin is intimately familiar with them all.
The executive chef of the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train has worked around the world, including a Michelin-starred posting in Hong Kong, restaurants in his native France, aboard boats, and on planes as a corporate chef with Canadian Airlines, Air Canada and Lufthansa Sky Chefs, to name just a few.
But for him, the Rocky Mountaineer — described by the Lonely Planet travel guide series as “one of the world’s ultimate experiences” for its postcard-pretty views of its Western Canada destinations and its exquisite meals and desserts — literally takes the cake.
“A day in the office for us is absolutely incredible,” he says.
“The scenery from the window is absolutely beautiful, and you don’t have that in any restaurant or hotel I’ve worked in the world … I’m partial to the stretch between Kamloops and Jasper. I love those big wide-open valleys with the beautiful lakes.
“I like the Rockies, don’t get me wrong, but I’m very partial to that trip. You can often see moose and bears, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Guerin’s cooking for the Rocky Mountaineer is steeped in the allure of the West.
As the train pulls into verdant B.C., the menu offers ocean-fresh salmon and seafood; if the train is winding through the glens of Alberta, the dishes will include the finest beef from the province’s ranch and farm lands.
The cooking staff sources ingredients indigenous to the locations the train chugs through whenever possible.
The eggs used in the sausage frittata are farmed in the Fraser Valley; the Merlot used to braise the short ribs is made from grapes picked in the Okanagan Valley; the sablefish is caught fresh from the Pacific Ocean.
“We’ll try to provide our guests with the culinary experience that matches the part of the world they’re travelling in,” he says.
Now, guests can experience a close approximation through the pages of Eat Play Love, a cookbook replete with photography of the sumptuous regionally inspired dishes and eye-popping scenery of Western landscapes on eight different routes.
“It’s all about passion,” says Guerin. “Food is about passion. Eating is about passion. Play, all our guests are here to play. And the love, you need the love of the food in order to cook properly.”
When they’re not overseeing their 80-plus staff over the course of more than 80 summer departures, or tweaking a constantly evolving local menu, Guerin and co-executive chef Frederic Couton can be found roaming the aisles, being photographed with guests and offering private tours of the kitchen galleys.
He says these interactions are often dotted with excited questions about how to replicate baked goods at home or about the specialty breakfasts — a point of pride for the creative Guerin —ranging from Dungeness crab cakes wrapped in egg rolls to smooth scrambled eggs daubed with creme fraiche.
“We have a lot of guests who are absolutely ecstatic about the experience on Rocky Mountaineer,” says Guerin.
“We get asked all the time for recipes and tips, so we made a cookbook to reflect the Western Canadian cuisine.”
But behind the plates are some fascinating challenges unique to preparing high-end cuisine on a train.
The onboard galleys are tiny, about 8.5 metres long and 2.5 metres wide, with little room for the intricate manoeuvring found in most top kitchens.
Pots of boiling water can only be half full, to account for the vibrations of the train cars.
Staff may have to remain standing for as many as 12 hours doing prep work and cooking, bound by regulations banning open flames. And, of course, that prep work presents dangers too.
“You’re working on a moving platform, so when you’re doing any kind of cutting, you have to be very careful and look at your knife, to make sure your fingers and your knife don’t meet,” says Guerin.
“But most of our culinary staff return year after year. Some of the staff have been there for 10 years plus, so we must be doing something right, or they wouldn’t be coming back, season after season.”
Guerin took this job after working aboard planes, where he says the food is made in advance.
Now, he gets to work with a true kitchen, and relishes these challenges.
“We run restaurants on board. On a plane, you rethermalize the food.”
He says he was also drawn to the Rocky Mountaineer at least in part by the romance of the rails.
“It conveys that image of the grand old days of train travel, where you were being served by … waiters with white gloves,” says Guerin.
“We’re not trying to recreate exactly this type of experience, but that’s what the guests expect: slow-paced travel with high-quality food and service.”