Kelly MacDonald, Executive Chef for the Napa Valley Wine Train, was standing in a walk-in refrigerator, pointing to a large round of stinky white stuff. “We have an assortment of fine cheeses, some local, some imported,” he noted, shuttling us out of the cold and into the next walk-in.
Kelly was giving my dad and me a tour around the commissary, a large building that serves as kitchen, warehouse, and prep-station for all the meals eventually served on the Wine Train. We had eaten on the train a day earlier (see, “On the Wine Train With Dad”), and Kelly had graciously invited us here to get a glimpse behind the scenes.
It was 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the large kitchen was abuzz with activity. A dozen or so white-coated workers, mostly Latino, bustled about chopping, mixing, frying, and stirring. Large stainless steel tables were set up as prep stations, each one demarcated with a “universal symbol”—a picture of a chicken at the poultry station, a cow at the beef station. Over at the fish station, a sous chef was filleting and weighing slices of halibut; a large slab of beef was meeting its Maker at the meat station; baby artichokes were soaking in lemon water at the vegetable station. At the enormous open ranges—Wolf ranges on ’roids—cooks were adeptly wielding skillets of sauce over large flames. A huge cauldron awaited soup. Every spot had a purpose, and every person had a focus. The train would be departing the commissary in less than an hour, and once it left the station, there would be no turning back.
During the summer high season, about 600 people will eat on the train per day—half lunch, half dinner. Like all fine dining operations, major preparation and planning is required. The fact that meals are served aboard a moving venue, however, adds another element of difficulty. The food is prepped in the commissary, but cooked to order on the train, which has three kitchens spread throughout nine cars. Different cars have different dining options—a fixed menu in one, a choice between six entrées in another, à la carte in a third—so each kitchen receives its own ingredients. On board, the cooking quarters are close, and because there is no possibility of reaching back into the pantry if something goes wrong, there is even less room for error. Trying to make excellent cuisine, while dealing with the logistics of multiple kitchens, seemed to me like a grand headache. I wondered if Kelly, like many notable chefs I have read about, had a mad schedule.
“Oh, I usually work about twelve to fourteen, sometimes fifteen hour days.”
“Five or six, then on my off days, I am usually on the phone for about four hours making sure things are in order, and sometimes I get so worried that I come down here (to the commissary) anyway.”
Despite the grueling hours, Kelly, forty-one years old, looks remarkably boyish. He has bright red hair, bright green eyes, and is quick to smile. He described his metabolism as being like that of a hummingbird, and the quickness with which he moved and the slimness of his build were evidence of that. I could tell by his friendly kitchen demeanor that he was not one of those chefs who barks orders at his underlings, à la Gordon Ramsey, but he did stress the importance of making sure the food is prepared and served correctly.
Kelly has been with the Wine Train for fourteen years, the last six as executive chef. He was voted the 2003 and 2004 People’s Choice Chef at the Napa Valley Mustard Festival, a regional celebration of food, wine, art, and mustard (both flowers and condiment).
Kelly continued our tour by leading us through the train. Since we had spent most of the previous day in the Vista Dome car, he showed us the through the eight other cars and accompanying kitchens, explaining the differences in cuisine and ambiance. In the Silverado Grill car, dining is casual and people can order à la carte; a large smoker is used to roast pork for pulled pork sandwiches. The Gourmet Express lunches are a little more sophisticated, something along the lines of beef tenderloin encrusted with herbs, roasted, and placed on a three-potato onion sauté with Cambozola crouton in an herb veal demi-glace.
Our lunch, which was part of the Champagne Vista Dome Vintner’s Luncheon, was Smoked Pork and Butter Lettuce Tacos with Queso Fresca paired with a Tulocay Pinot Noir; Heirloom Tomato Gratin with Valley Quail Confit paired with a 2002 Tulocay Syrah; Grilled Hanger Steak on a Portobello Mushroom in Cabernet Shallot Duxelles paired with a 2002 Tulocay Cabernet Sauvignon; and for dessert, a Mascarpone and Berry Parfait.
Since Napa Valley is known as much for the wine as it is for the food, the Wine Train has serious competition from the plethora of dining options in the valley. At ninety-nine dollars for a four-course dinner (not including wine), the train is priced steps below the French Laundry and Auberge de Soleil (where a bottle of wine [$90] and a selection of artisan cheeses [$24] can run you [a still hungry] $114), but above other great eateries like Travigne, Mustards Grill, and Bouchon.
The competition, of course, is something that constantly raises the caliber of food in Napa. Even if the train ride is a unique way to see the wine country, the cuisine has to be good enough to hold reputation in a valley where chefs are famous, and destinations plentiful. Which is why, after showing my dad and me around for about forty-five minutes, Kelly had to return to work.
Related article: “Ticket to Ride in the Napa Valley.”
Photo courtesy of author