Walnut Grove, Langley, British Columbia
Whenever there is any acknowledgment of the extra effort the chef puts forth to provide a memorable meal, it is much appreciated. In turn, he attempts to make a meal in the diner a truly pleasant experience. However, passengers arriving late for meals or complaining or being rude make his job and that of his waiters a little more difficult.
Late diners create problems for everyone, especially when they dribble in over a half-hour or more. Since Michael has commenced his meal well before the call, his routine must stop, The regulation slips advise passengers to go when a meal is called. This is usually about fifteen minutes before the actual serving takes place. Some passengers may be confused by an approximate time being quoted. Others may not hear the call clearly. Some are just not in a hurry.
The chief complaint that he hears is concerning how well done the meat is. Each person has his/her own perception of what rare, medium, and well done entail. What is medium rare to one person may be underdone to another and overdone to still another. The menu now advises diners to order pork a little pink because it is still cooking when it is medium. If there be many people being served, it likely will be done in time for any passenger when it reaches the table.
He finds that most people are very polite. However, occasionally, he hears about one who has been rude. It is more likely a waiter than a chef who experiences this.
Michael was born in Victoria, British Columbia. Walnut Grove, where he now resides, is a commuter town located in northern Langley. Thus, it is actually a suburban town within a town. He began his formal secondary education at Steveston Senior Secondary School, Richmond, B.C. and he received his training for his current position at Vancouver Community College in the culinary arts programme.
Michael had been employed in hotels and restaurants and wanted a change. He thought that working on a train would be exciting and would also allow him to travel. When he joined a crew, VIA Rail was hiring professional chefs from outside the company. As it happened, only he and one other person were hired out of Vancouver that year. Commencing to work for VIA Rail provided him with his first train ride.
He has been employed by VIA Rail since 1997, where he is currently a chef. In order to work more and elongate his seasonal work he also holds the position of service co-ordinator (steward) and SSA. Actually, each person holds the position of senior service attendant, whether waiter, porter, or other, with the exception of the ASC, SM and activity co-ordinator. At the beginning of a trip, each SSA of the crew chooses a job based on seniority.
Michael’s first experience as a train chef occurred in a skyliner. There were six tables and about twenty-four people for each of three sittings. That was not a difficult assignment. He found his work awesome and exciting.
His run goes from Vancouver to Winnipeg and back to Vancouver. His typical tour of duty is six days on and eight days off. This run on the Canadian has provided him with his only railroad experience.
The train arrives in Winnipeg at 8:30 p.m. and the crew is released at 9:30 p.m. In about half an hour, Michael has arrived at his hotel for the night. Then, he reports back to work at about 8:30 a.m. the next day, giving him very little free time. On the old schedule, he had about a half-day in Winnipeg, allowing him to go golfing. He does have a six-hour night break on the train. There are no stopovers for him when on a run. However, he occasionally stops at one of the intermediate points when he is not on duty.
All crew members and their immediate family have company passes to travel by train. For other passengers, there is the flexi-pass, which allows them to stop at any point on the system over a thirty-day period.
As chef, Michael’s basic duties are to manage food preparation of all meals, ensuring high standards of sanitation. He is responsible for food presentation, cost/revenue ratios, inventory, and loading and rotating of supplies.
On the eastbound trip, food is loaded at Vancouver to last until the train reaches Winnipeg, where there is a reloading for the second leg to Toronto. For the return trip, loading takes place in the opposite order. The chefs do the ordering to specific suppliers who have made bids for contracts to provide what the diners need.
It is necessary to store food for six meals over two days. Usually, this will be enough. However, on occasion, it is necessary to purchase a few groceries en route from stores in such centres as Jasper and Edmonton. On board are refrigerators and two freezers in the galley where the perishable supplies can be stored until needed. These are jammed full when the train leaves the loading point. There is also a small kitchen in each dome car, from where he has had to work in the past.
For three of his years aboard the Canadian, Michael was involved in the process of menu planning and development. The chefs take turns in this role. They used to include specials; but since some chefs are more highly trained and experienced and some prepared specials of lesser quality, the practice was discontinued. Now, menus are set for each run. Therefore, a passenger will find virtually the same items in the diners on one train. Even so, some chefs put in a little more effort than others.
In the summer, there will be at least two diners and a coffee shop on a train. From October on, there will be only one diner. If there will be more than seventy-four passengers, there will be a cook to help him. However, if there are fewer, he will be alone.
Equipment in the galley is made of stainless steel. After each meal en route, it is sanitized by wiping with a cloth dipped in bleach and water. At the end of a run, the same is performed in the freezers and the refrigerators. He is happy never to have experienced an unexpected sanitary problem.
Michael starts preparing the food about one meal in advance. For instance, he will make the sauces and marinate the meat, as needed. About an hour prior to a meal, he will prepare such items as potatoes and rice and sear the meat. When the meal cheques arrive, he adds up everything. He finds that good planning will avoid many problems when it is time to serve. All heating of food is conducted with the use of electricity; but, in times past, propane was used.
He sometimes has to provide meals for passengers requiring special diets. When such persons purchase their tickets, they should notify the agent, who will record the nature of the diet. This information will appear on the manifest and be seen by the chef when he reports to work. Now, he can order accordingly. If a passenger has not done this, he/she should notify the chef on boarding the train. That would help him. However, if the passenger waits until meal time, the chef is limited as to the SSR (special service request).
At major stations, the train takes on fuel, is washed, and has the water tanks filled. If there be a toilet problem, a “honey truck” will come and suck out the blockage. A few times the water tanks were not filled. In Winnipeg, where there is a wait of four hours, the water tank is sometimes filled on the train’s arrival. After lunch, the galley may be out of water. This creates a problem for washing pots and pans. Recently, a hose linkage from the sleeping cars to the galley was installed, providing hot water.
Train #1 travels west and Train #2 travels east. If there should be a slide in the Fraser Canyon, the two trains must work together. If there will be a long wait before the trains can go through, passengers and crew will be carried by bus to the other train. The trains are turned around at a siding to go in the opposite direction. Usually, there will be knowledge of the situation well in advance. If they should already be in the Canyon, it is necessary for them to go back in the direction from which they have come to make the change. Since the trains may have a different number of passengers and since the westbound trains will have used much of its food supply, a chef has to be creative and stock a few extra supplies.
Most crew members now, with the possible exception of a chef or an older employee, will be bilingual with English and French. Announcements are made in both languages.
Michael remembers an instance during the middle of meal service when the train hit a truck at a uncontrolled crossing. The truck broke into two pieces and flew by the diner in flames. When the train had stopped, a few employees and a passenger who was a paramedic rushed back to check. Unfortunately, the driver had not survived.
He would recommend that a potential traveller be a passenger on the Canadian because it is an ideal way to see Canada, if one is not in a hurry. It is possible to purchase a rail pass and embark and disembark at different locations to break up the trip, and spend some time exploring.
He is hesitant about encouraging a young person to follow a career aboard a train. He would more likely recommend such a person to obtain an education or enter into a trade. A train career is a good job, though, with ample pay and benefits; but it is seasonal for years before one can have steady work year round.
Where in Canada would Michael recommend someone to visit? He maintains that British Columbia is the best place. He has never been east of Toronto, but he would like to see Montreal and continue on to the east coast.
In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, playing tennis, running, and gardening. One of his hobbies. gardening, he enjoys very much. He does not have a specialty; but he grows his own fruit and such vegetables as tomatoes, six types of lettuce, peas, beans, cucumbers, fresh herbs and potatoes. He is able to do this as he has the land space, good soil, and the time.
May all passengers who love travelling by train, eating in the dining car, and enjoying the experience remember who is responsible for their food on board!
(This page was updated in October 2012.)