On the slowest express train in the world, the kitchen is a hive of activity
Membership of the catering team on the slowest express train in the world is not a job for beginners. Time is always pressing and every move must count, with many curves to test your sense of balance. A day in the kitchen of the Glacier Express, where all meals are freshly prepared.
The meat is carved in Brig. It is 11.12 a.m. as the train rolls into this small town in the region of Upper Valais to take on further St. Moritz-bound passengers. The passengers are all looking forward to their ride on this train with its famous panoramic views. And they have a good appetite. Since 9.52, the departure-time from Zermatt, chef Sinthusan Tharumalingam has been busy with the day’s set menu: stuffed roast pork with prunes, spätzli noodles with parsley, and steamed spinach, plus a bouillon-and-pea starter with mountain herbs, and a dessert of Domleschg cherry tart. The on-board galley, and domain of this 28-year-old railway chef from Sri Lanka, is a narrow area of barely ten metres in length, with just one metre of clearance separating the working surfaces, two windows and all the space needed to store pots and pans, cutlery, crockery and kitchen utensils in the most compact manner possible. This is where Mr Tharumalingam, working entirely alone, produces freshly-prepared meals for our passengers from all over the world. „There are some forty set menus to serve today, along with a dozen la carte meals“, he quickly calculates.
«You need a strong sense of balance, and to be sure of not using too much salt.»Sinthusan Tharumalingam, on-board chef
A hectic lunchtime
The Glacier Express reaches Oberwald just after midday. This is when things start to get hectic in the kitchen, even though today’s train isn’t fully-occupied. As the passengers sit back and relax after ordering their meals, the chef is busy cooking the spätzli and spinach in a large pan, while putting the water on for the bouillon and carrying out regular checks on the meat, which he put in the oven to warm just before Brig. Unlike the passengers, he barely has any opportunity to glance out of the window and admire the views of the passing landscape. Meal preparation involves many tasks. The waitresses hand in a constant stream of orders, while doing their best to dampen the increasing stress. „Two goulash soups and two cheese selections. But take it easy!“ is the calming advice of waitress Margarita Thoma. The table staff often give the chef a hand with preparation, or by intervening whenever, say, the pearl-barley soup seems to be in danger of overcooking, while Mr Tharumalingam stands on the window-side, preparing a Prättigau Farmer’s Special of locally-produced ham and cheese.
Important: a sense of balance
The catering team, which consists – in addition to the chef Mr Tharumalingam – of head waiter Mijo Maric and waitresses Margarita Thoma and Birgit Wellig, is a smoothly-running machine, despite the hectic atmosphere and lack of space. All four of them sometimes end up in a single, narrow bottleneck, but still manage to operate smoothly. A casual comment might escape someone’s lips, but anyone observing this team of four different nationalities soon realises how they need to be able to juggle several tasks simultaneously with full and undivided attention. It all takes place on a constantly-swaying train. A sense of balance and a steady hand are vital on the winding sections of track, to stop anything being over-salted or spilled. „I use extra-tough footwear“, explains the chef, Mr Tharumalingam. The crew members, who previously worked mostly in restaurants, tell of quickly getting used to the swaying. And if something untoward happens, like the driver having to slam on the brakes, it’s not the end of world, because – as head waiter Mr Maric explains – „The passengers understand the situation.“
Meals ordered in advance
Everything is going smoothly today. As the train enters Andermatt, just before one o'clock, the waiting staff have covered the route from the four carriages to the kitchen countless times. Sometimes they do this individually, sometimes in pairs and sometimes three at a time – serving the set meal of meat, spätzli and spinach directly at each passenger’s own neatly- laid table. Just as the main course is being served, there are always those diners who are suddenly tempted to make a last-second order. „The roast looks good. Have you seen it?“ says one passenger, as the three members of waiting staff go by. But her order is already too late, as the roast set menu is sold out. In fact, many passengers order their set menu, which changes every day, at the same time as they buy their tickets. Guests lacking foresight can still order a meal from the menu, which includes various local specialities from Graubünden and Wallis; the two cantons served by the Glacier Express. The selection of set meals and menu items is carried out by RailGourmino swissAlps AG, of Chur, which also caters for the Glacier Express, the Rhaetian Railway and the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway. Just don’t ask for chips. „The train’s swaying makes deepfat frying too dangerous“, explains on-board chef Mr Tharumalingam.
«I can't imagine going back to work in a restaurant.»Mijo Maric, head waiter
„Better than in a restaurant“
The lunchtime-stress is over by 2 p.m. The train stops for several minutes in Disentis, to allow shunting work to take place. The chef uses the pause to get some fresh air, and many passengers also get off to stretch their legs. But the shift is not yet over in the on-board kitchen. As the train journeys on towards the Rhine Gorge, coffee and cakes are served and the dishwasher is loaded up. While the dishwasher cleans the tableware, the kitchen pans have to be washed by hand until they gleam like new. There are always some passengers who begin to feel peckish in the afternoon. „Our shift doesn't finish until the Glacier Express reaches its terminus in St. Moritz“, says head waiter Mr Maric, who always bids the passengers a personal farewell. On the following day, everything is repeated in the opposite direction, with a whole new set of culinary experiences to enjoy aboard the Glacier Express. The train’s catering staff obviously love their job aboard the slowest express train in the world. „It really is fun. Every day is different, and we have many international guests on board“, says head waiter Mr Maric. „I can't imagine going back to work in a restaurant.“