Shaun Murphy was facing a chef's worst nightmare: a dining room full of guests and nothing to feed them. And running around the corner to the market was absolutely out of the question. Murphy was cooking aboard a train that was stuck between Los Angeles and Chicago.
A highly regarded chef, Murphy was in the galley of a private rail car that was delayed for 12 hours after a train up ahead went off the track in Iowa. The passengers had been scheduled to arrive at their destination well before dinner, but Murphy wasn't about to let them go hungry.
"I opened the refrigerator and said, 'OK, I've got strudel dough. I've got some chicken. I've got spinach leftover from the creamed spinach last night,' " Murphy recalls.
Thus was born chicken strudel, also known as her "Derailment Special."
A graduate of New York Restaurant School, Murphy, 45, worked in high-end restaurants and catering companies before moving to California and hearing the "all aboard" call 16 years ago. She spends much of her time aboard the Los Angeles-based Scottish Thistle. When that rail car is not on the track, she is in demand for gigs on other trains.
"There's a lot of seat of your pants stuff" involved in the job, says Murphy, who now can't imagine cooking in a kitchen that doesn't sway back and forth. "It's never the same from any day to the next, and I have a great deal of autonomy. I will never be bored."
Californian Dean McCormick bought the Scottish Thistle 16 years ago, after a long career in the transportation industry. He hired Murphy on the recommendation of a friend and has high praise for her cooking skills. "She knows what I like better than I do."
During the summer, the rail car is used for day charters from Los Angeles' Union Station to the Del Mar racetrack, serving brunch on the way south and dinner on the trip back. The car also is available for journeys that last days or even weeks. But regardless of length, McCormick says meals are a highlight of any trip.
"Just the fact that you're sitting there watching the scenery go by, it's a different experience than dining in a restaurant," McCormick says.
There are more than 100 private rail cars in the United States. Most owners are wealthy train buffs who buy the cars for personal travel or as business ventures. The cars meet rigorous safety standards before being hitched to Amtrak trains, which pull them along their routes.
Private rail cars can offer luxurious accommodations, including lush bedrooms and baths, living rooms, kitchens and formal dining rooms. Passengers may dress up for dinner and sit at tables adorned with fine china, crystal and silver, enjoying terrific meals and white-glove service. The ambience and food take travelers back to the grand old days when dining by rail was a truly memorable experience.
"Bad food can make a trip miserable," says Amanda Hatrick, 20, whose parents own the vintage rail car Overland Trail, also based at Union Station, which can be booked for custom charters. Hatrick grew up in the train galley, where she has been mentored by Murphy. She now works as a part-time cook aboard her family's private rail car while she's attending school.
"It's fast-paced, and the balance thing is always an issue. I learned everything from Shaun," Hatrick says. "She knows what can and can't be done."
Most rail chefs are independent contractors, in demand for their skill in preparing gourmet meals while hurtling along at high speeds, which can play all kinds of tricks on food. Imagine trying to cook while standing in an earthquake simulator, and you get the idea.
"It was a challenge in the beginning," says Kevin Langton, who has cooked for more than 20 years in private rail cars.
Pie, no pumpkin
On one of his first trips, Langton, a veteran of restaurant and country club kitchens, prepared a Thanksgiving feast. When it came time to remove his pumpkin pies from the oven, he got a surprise: The crusts were empty, the filling gone AWOL during a bumpy ride. Despite this rough start, Langton stayed on track and is considered one of the top train chefs in the United States. He often can be found in the galleys of the Georgia 300, based in Florida or the Chapel Hill, based in Cincinnati.
"I got into it, and I've been doing it ever since," says Langton, 50, who lives in Florida for the few months a year when he is not on a train. "I've enjoyed the freedom of traveling and cooking in a very prestigious car. It's a great life."
As Langton has cooked his way across the country, he has memorized where the track is bad and times his meals accordingly, only serving his butternut squash soup, for example, during smooth patches. And, never forgetting those doomed pumpkin pies, Langton says: "I do a lot of my baking when we're not moving."
It's not only the constant motion that makes the job a challenge. Other obstacles are the small cooking space and the fact that you can't run out to the grocery if all of your eggs smash on the floor in the middle of Wyoming. Sloshing hot liquid can be a hazard. Pouring wine at the table requires balance and timing, so it ends up in the glass and not the passenger's lap.
The compact galleys offer special features such as dish mounts and latches on cupboards to keep flying saucers grounded and to hold china and crystal in place. Lips on stove tops prevent pots from sliding off. And chefs follow basic safety rules, such as no deep-frying on the train.
Most galleys hold only a few days' worth of supplies. Chefs have favorite markets across the country and build meals around fresh and seasonal finds, restocking when the train has layovers.
To cope with a small pantry, Murphy tries to adhere to what she calls the "seven ingredient or less" rule for most recipes. Sometimes, despite her best planning, she says the train requires her to be flexible and "roll with it," no pun intended.
Changes in altitude can cause problems. After mixing up batter in San Francisco, Murphy was puzzled as to why her baking cake was not rising. "Then I gazed out the window at the snowy peaks of Donner Pass," she says.
Both Murphy and Langton have cooked for celebrities and politicians. Murphy says that a private rail car is a way for famous people to travel without being harassed by paparazzi. "A lot of people don't know we exist. We're a well-kept secret."
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Langton prepared a turkey dinner, which prompted Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry to roll up his sleeves and carve.
When singer Barry Gibb and his family rode the train from Miami to New York for the Grammy Awards, Langton was ready to make a gourmet dinner. Then Gibb surprised him by saying what he really wanted was a burger and fries.
"I had to grind up filet mignon to make hamburger," Langton recalls.
Hey, can I help?
On most rail cars the kitchen is the chef's inner sanctum, but that's not always the case.
"Often, after a few margaritas, people feel inclined to help me in the kitchen," says Emily Bradley, 29, the chef and event planner on the private car Patrón Tequila Express, which has a galley big enough to hold several wannabe railroad Rachael Rays.
The cooking style on this rail car, which is used for corporate and entertainment-industry events, is more casual than the white-glove service on other cars, Bradley says. She tries to include local flavors and tailors her menus to embody cities along the route.
Bradley and the other rail chefs use words like "fun" and "adventure" when talking about their jobs. Once they get onboard, the only looking back is from the rear train platform, where they can relax and enjoy spectacular views.
"If I were still in a restaurant, I would be only in the kitchen and only dealing with food," says Murphy. " On the train, I have a great deal of contact with my guests. Some of them I've become close to and consider friends, and almost all of our clients arrive onboard ready to be happy. I've been able to travel to places I'd ordinarily never have gone."