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Moveable feast

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Chef Nicole Hatfield enjoys preparing gourmet cuisine on the move
Dressed-up travellers on Great Southern Rail’s (GSR) ‘Southern Spirit’ are gathering in the Outback lounge for pre-dinner drinks. The know they are about to experience dinner at a table set with fine china, silverware and white linen so there’s an air of anticipation in the room. The atomosphere is a reminder of the days when dining in a rail car was the highlight of any rail journey.

On tonight’s menu for starter there’s antipasto with pita bread and pesto; entree involves Maryland of Chicken with parsnip cream, truffle jus and pickled walnuts; next is tenderloin of beef topped with Dijon mustard and cracked black pepper, roasted and served with seasonal baby vegetables, potato cake and black porter jus. Treacle tart with caramel rum sauce, ginger snap and crème fraiche will follow.
The dining room doors slide open and like magic, one after the other, these dishes are quickly placed before diners watching the varied landscape slide past.

Executive chef Bradley Kerkman is mingling with guests. Responsible for onboard food and beverage for all GSR services including The Ghan, Indian Pacific and The Southern Spirit, it’s Bradley’s job to create the menu and procure the produce. For someone with a big responsibility like this, he’s looking incredibly relaxed. Mouth-watering fare, from fresh seafood to kangaroo, pork, chicken and beef is unending throughout the journey. In between sips and bites, diners are asking just how do these amazing dishes materialise on a train?

“There are some organisational difficulties to overcome,” Bradley says. “It’s certainly a different world and a long way removed from land based restaurants. But with carefully selected staff who can click in a team, things usually unfold according to plan,” he explains. “I have a general overview of what I think we need and share that with the chefs – they can then add to it as they like and work with it until they get it right. Once the products are delivered to them, (fresh produce is boarded at most stops) they are able to prepare and cook. We are constantly staying ahead of the game, looking to improve things wherever we can. As pallets are always changing, we refine the menu every six months, changing or modifying at least 20 percent of the dishes.”

When trains are out for a long period of time, delays are possible and sometimes a lunch or dinner needs to be quickly found. “Occasionally this might mean loading up a refrigerated van and driving it out to deliver another meal,” Bradley explains. “Times like this can cause an adrenalin rush as we all try to make things happen on schedule – but it’s all good fun.”

With travellers often sitting for long periods of time, he says taking care of nutrition is important. “We try to provide lighter options on board and fresh produce where we can - and we really go out of our way to source fresh food. We’re able to get fantastic produce from around the country, for example, fabulous fruit from Darwin and wine from the Barossa Valley. We purchase our meat from various regions and suppliers across Australia to take advantage of optimum, seasonal feeding conditions. In turn, our suppliers are able to supply us with products that meet our specifications like fat score, acid levels, colour and so on. Given we have 35 chefs and some serious space considerations, continuity is exceptionally important to us. We order our meat in portion cuts and they need to be a certain thickness, size and shape to ensure an even cooking time and consistent flavour.”

While Bradley hops on a train as often as he can to see what’s happening, he spends a lot of his time in Adelaide to devise menus, procure produce and manage the retail side of things. Trains carry a dining car with two chefs and the kitchen can cater for 96 people (two sittings of 48). In the event of guest numbers exceeding 96, another kitchen (and accommodation cars) is added with another two chefs. A double train, with four chefs can carry a maximum of 192 guests.

While working long, fast paced hours, train chefs Nicole Hatfield and Russell Seymour both enjoy cooking in a restaurant that’s moving. “Every trip is different,” Nicole adds. “We normally start at 5am, serve breakfast to guests by 7am and later to the crew. About 30 minutes after breakfast it’s time to prepare for lunch which goes on for a few hours and then not long after that it’s time to start again for dinner. Our day certainly revolves around meals – as we’re preparing one, we’re thinking about the next. We do work long hours, but we’re rewarded with extended days off.”

As unforseen things do happen on trains from time to time, like tracks going under flood water, train chefs are familiar with unusual circumstances and are prepared to think laterally in the event of a crisis. With strict food and safety requirements (stricter than in a land restaurant), a good eye has to be kept constantly on food temperatures and fridges. “Occasionally a power van might shut down,” Russell explains. “And if our on-board technician can’t fix it, we have to throw everything out and have new food flown or driven in wherever it can be brought to.”

With little space to store extras, creating dishes for those with special dietary requirements can call for resourcefulness. “If people give us prior notice it’s not a problem; but if not, with no local store to run to, it can sometimes be difficult to find the extra food,” Nicole says. “But we usually manage to create something.”
For more information: Phone 1300 881 416 or go to www.southernspirit.com.au