Planes, trains and hotel cuisinerie – that is how chef Jean Pierre Guerin's culinary CV reads. The French chef has spent much of his career preparing food on the go, literally. After working in a number of hotels, he decided he wanted a challenge and looked to the skies. For many years he served as the corporate chef of Lufthansa Sky Chefs, the catering company for many airlines, before taking to the rails. As one of four executive chefs for the Rocky Mountaineer – a train that tours through the Rockies and has been lauded by Outside magazine as "one of the greatest train rides in the world" – Mr. Guerin is in charge of an 85-person staff that is tasked with preparing four meal seatings a day for groups as large as 72, all while trying not to lose his balance in the galleys.
Did you know from an early age that food was your passion and you wanted to be a chef?
Actually, yes. My mom was a very good chef. I definitely learned a lot of my tricks of the trade at home but I also learned a lot by travelling internationally. I worked quite extensively in South America, the Caribbean, Hong Kong and the U.S. I think I've worked on every continent because of my work with airlines.
What's the earliest dish you remember making all by yourself?
It was a beef bourguignon, stewed beef that has been marinated in red wine and slow cooked. I served it to my family.
Did you have a favourite meal growing up?
You know what, I really didn't. I do remember, though, what I didn't like. I hated brains, which was a big thing back then. And I hated Fridays because we had to eat fish. And unfortunately seafood cooking in Brittany where I grew up was not very good. So I hated Fridays.
Now that you've grown up, do you still have an aversion to seafood?
Absolutely not. Now it's my favourite meal. I eat more seafood now and less meat. And one of the fish I enjoy the most – it's best seafood as far as I'm concerned – is fresh Atlantic cod. The flavour is so good and I like the flaky texture. But I like it prepared very, very simply. Just quickly pan-fried with a little bit of butter or oil olive and some salt and pepper. Nothing to it, because I am a true believer that if you start adding a whole bunch of spices to a product you're wasting it.
What appealed to you about working on a train?
Well, I saw working on a train as a kind of challenge and it was a natural shift when you've worked on an airline in confined spaces. The train has one huge advantage though: We get to prepare the food fresh and our guests are travelling with us. I mean the chef is often in the same car. We have professional chefs working on fresh food to order, as it'd be if you were in a restaurant.
We have a very extensive training program for our kitchen staff. We have to teach them how to behave because when you work in a confined space you have to be very organized. You can't be running back and worth to the supply car because it might be three, four, five cars away. Which is a long way to travel when you're on a moving platform.
Is balance an issue when you're cooking on the train?
It's actually a work requirement. We specify it when we put out ads when we're looking for employees. We explain that the job involves a lot of standing. An average day in the galleys could be up to 12 hours. For people who are not used to travel on trains, after those first few days of work, when you get to your hotel room at night you actually think you're still moving. It's called train legs.
What do you eat to fuel your long shifts on the train?
I eat light meals. Usually yogurt in the morning and a bagel with smoked salmon at lunchtime. I like to have little to eat. I really can't have anything heavy. But I do have a big meal when the train is stopped, something like a pasta with seafood.
Do you have a guilty pleasure food?
I don't like sugar so I definitely don't have a sweet tooth. But I do really enjoy protein. So I'm happiest with a nice piece of fish or a nice piece of meat that is simply prepared. Nothing overly complicated.
Spicy or sweet?
Sparkling or still water?
Blue cheese or double-cream brie?
Wine on its own: Red or white?
Hamburger or hot dog?
This interview has been condensed and edited.