It's all about precision, efficiency and securing knives with magnets.
Running a restaurant is no easy feat—but just imagine running a restaurant three-quarters of a mile long, with 10 separate kitchens, and a staff of 90. Now imagine dishing up 1 million plates to 120,000 guests every seven months. Oh, and the whole operation happens on wheels—while hurtling across the Canadian Rockies at speeds of up to 60 mph. That's the life of Jean Pierre Guerin, executive chef on board the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train service that's shepherded avid mountain-oglers across British Columbia and Alberta for more than a quarter of a century.
Guerin, who previously worked as executive chef at Lalique in Hong Kong and at the British Columbia Club before designing first-class menus as Corporate Chef Design and Development at Lufthansa Sky Chefs, runs his operation with military precision. In fact, if you walk through the galleys before first seatings at lunch, you'll notice that every single kitchen is doing exactly the same thing at any given moment—it's like a carefully choreographed dance. Food & Wine sat down with Chef Guerin on board the Rocky Mountaineer, en route from Vancouver to Kamloops, to find out how he keeps the whole operation on point—serving up 20+ menu options each day, restaurant style, to train cars full of hungry travelers.
Cooking on board, in numbers: On a typical train running from Vancouver to Kamloops and continuing on to Banff and Jasper, "we would have anywhere between five to ten galleys in Gold Leaf service, four to six in Silver Leaf, and two crew cars, which also have galleys," Chef Guerin says. "In Gold Leaf galleys we have three chefs per car, and in Silver Leaf we have one chef per car." Breakfast and lunch are served on board the train and each menu includes seven or eight choices, plus five to six vegetarian options.
Only Local: "We source everything locally," Chef Guerin says. "We request our protein to be Canadian—Western Canadian in particular. We're very well-known here for our beef. A lot of our beef comes from Western Canada because it's cowboy country. Our albacore tuna comes from the Pacific—it's fished off shore from Vancouver Island. All our wine is BC wine. And the vegetables, we work with suppliers in season."
Cooking on a train is different from cooking on land: "The most important part is safety," Chef Guerin says. "Obviously we are on a moving platform and you have to be very mindful of your environment. We work in small galleys at high volume—it's a fast-paced, very small working environment. So you have to be super well-organized."
KonMari this: "We have very strict guidelines—everything has a spot," Chef Guerin says. "If you go into any of our galleys, and you ask anybody, 'Where's the flour?' The flour is located on the shelf in front of you on the left hand side. The flour is not located in the cupboard somewhere hidden away. It's always in the same spot. Our galleys have been mapped, so they're more or less identical. There are a few variations, but not many—so the knife will be in that drawer and they will be safely stowed with a magnet so they don't slide out. And since we're on a moving platform, the drawers are secured. That's part of the discipline and routine aboard the train."
Everything happens with military precision: "We've established processes for everything—it's military in its approach, that's what we do," Chef Guerin says. "Because when you're called for lunch at noon, every other car is also being called for lunch at noon. That's why when you walk through the galleys you will find them doing almost exactly the same thing at the same time. We know exactly what items need to be prepared before and at what time. For breakfast, for example, the cooks board the train at 5:45 a.m. exactly, and have about an hour and a half to get ready for the first seating of breakfast. During that time, they have to follow the order of exactly what they have to do. Our entire day is mapped."
How to make soup on a train: It all comes down to prep. "We have two bases—our staff base is in Vancouver, and Kamloops is our home base in terms of the commissary," Chef Guerin says. "We have a kitchen in Kamloops that produces various ingredients for what we do on the train. Most of the basic kitchen prep is made in Kamloops—sauces, soups, stocks. We just don't have the big pots on board needed to produce that amount and it would be very dangerous.
"They'll give us the soups in extract," he says. "They'll give us a puree of carrot and ginger, and it will be seasoned and everything, but it's basically a puree. And then we'll just add on the cream and finish it off and make it really beautiful on board. But everybody will get 11 liters of soup and they have to follow the exact recipe. They'll get three liters of cream and you have to put salt and pepper to the correct amount—and our sous chefs are there to actually taste it and to make sure that every galley follows the same process—that it's exactly the same."
The secret to his success? "I believe in processes," Chef Guerin says. "I do believe that it's very nice to be creative and to do things at the spur of the moment, but in this environment, given the amount of guests we have to serve and the quality of the product we need to produce, you have to be driven by process, and that's key. And not only do you need to be driven by this, you have to stick to it."