Chef Kelly Macdonald serves gourmet food on the go. He serves it on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which travels through the emerald acres of vineyards and wineries of Northern California.
This is fine dining done right, but it means putting out 300 dishes in three hours from a kitchen 83 feet long by 8 feet wide. There are two adjunct kitchens, which Chef Macdonald describes as “compact.” Their actual size is about 17 feet by 7 feet.
“The challenge is the combination of things that have to be thought out,” Macdonald says. “How many steps does it take to make and plate a dish? And can I do it fast enough, and accurately enough, and still make it beautiful and inspiring to others? In this kitchen you have to think of every move you make.”
The food is prepped at the Wine Train’s Culinary Arts Center, which includes a three-story kitchen, catering room, and storage, and is located a quarter of a mile up the tracks from the depot. “That’s not to say if we run low we’re not making food on the train—because we do, even if it’s not fun,” Chef Macdonald says, explaining that the hardest part is dealing with the motion of the train and any unexpected braking.
Working in this kitchen is different for many reasons, he explains. “In a normal kitchen there’s a flow, but for us it’s like a race. We get ready, the light turns green, and we put out 130 plates; then we stop the race, clean up, and get ready to do it again for the next course.”
Macdonald has worked on the train for 20 years, 15 of them as executive chef. He serves regional food with Mediterranean influences, especially Provence, with dishes like a rack of lamb rubbed and marinated with anchovy, bay, and kalamata olives. “They’re light and clean foods,” he says, “food that lets the ingredients shine.”
The train offers three dining options: The Gourmet Express cars, which have 60 and 72 seats, serve meals ranging from $124 to $139 per person. The Silverado Car, which is the most casual with windows that open or are removed, features a California-grill menu for $124 a head. This car is closed in the winter, although open for catered events. The Vista Dome car offers the premium package—a four-course meal for $199 per person. “Meals in this car are at a slower pace, and there’s a step up in the menu,” Chef Macdonald says.
The Napa Valley Wine Train offers lunch and dinner around 360 days per year; it’s closed for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and for a few days of maintenance in January. It serves around 100,000 people annually, including tourists and locals, and does a brisk business in special events and charters as customers frequently reserve the entire train for an event.