As someone who can't manage to drink a cup of tea on a moving train without getting half of it down my shirt I wanted to know how the chefs on The Blue Train cope with the movement of the train and the cramped conditions but still succeed in producing such amazing meals. We had a chat with Executive Chef Esther Ndlovu:
Hi Esther, how long have been working on The Blue Train?
I have been with The Blue Train for the past 17 years now.
Wow that's a long time, what did you do before?
I graduated from Garankuwa Hotel School in 1991 and then worked for Sun International and various other restaurants before joining The Blue Train.
So are the meals really prepared from scratch on the train or are they pre-cooked and brought onto the train before departure?
All meals are freshly prepared on board with fresh raw ingredients.
I imagine that must create a few challenges?
The space constraints are testing - the space to prepare the meals is so limited, it is 13m x 3m.
Another challenge is if the train is running late or behind schedule a spontaneous new menu has to be formulated, printed and prepared for all guests within a short space of time. This is usually due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control such as signal failure, break-down of other trains in front of the train, washed out railway lines due to bad weather.
What about the movement of the train, it must get wobbly, I think I'd be dropping things all the time?
The movements of the train were a challenge at first, but you get used to it. Having experienced waiters/butlers - some of whom have been with The Blue Train for over two decades, also helps.
What is your favourite part of the journey?
The Blue Train is often chartered on a different course – outside the standard route between Pretoria and Cape Town. It is during these charter trips that I get excited as I have to create different menus. This allows me to experiment and have a bit of creativity.
OK so if I'm lucky enough to travel on The Blue Train what would you recommend I choose from the menu?
Seafood Parcel - It's an Oriental flavoured mussel and prawn wrapped in phyllo pastry with warm fennel and plum.
It goes well with a dry white wine. I would recommend the Viognier (Auction Crossing). The wine has interesting aromas of petals and peach with a velvety smooth minerally palate and hints of creamy vanilla on the finish.
From the Veld - Braised springbok shank on herbed parmesan polenta gallette with grilled pears.
Complimented with a Cabernet Sauvignon (Chamonix). This is a magnificent full bodied and complex wine. It has full rich black currant and cherry flavour with an elegant finish.
Rooibos Pannacotta - Pannacotta cream infused with Rooibos tea and served in a chocolate pot.
Recommended wine is a natural sweet wine (Klein Constantia - Vin De Constance).
Former State President Nelson Mandela enjoyed this wine when he travelled with us a couple of year back! Need I say more?!
Well if it's good enough for Madiba it's certainly good enough for me!
If you spend your working day creating this amazing cuisine I wonder what sort of meals do you like to cook at home?
The traditional South African Pap and vleis and gravy. A combination of milled maize flour cooked in boiling water and topped with braised red meat of beef or mutton.
Esther would you mind sharing one of your favourite recipes with us?
Sure, how about this one for Butternut Cheesecake:
Cream and Feta cheese
Bake puff pastry sheet in oven until golden brown
Mix cream and feta cheese and chopped pepperdews in a bowl.
Boil butternut till well cooked and strain it
Pour butternut on top of baked puff pastry.
Put a layer of cream and feta cheese and pepperdew on top of butternut.
Beat eggs and cream together and pour over.
Bake in oven until golden brown.
Cut in squares and enjoy with fried baby spinach.
Have you ever cooked for any famous guests?
I have cooked for local and international celebrities, Heads of State such as former Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, Sir Elton John, Quincy Jones, Naomi Campbell, Paul Simon, Mia Farrow, to name but a few. However, The Blue Train is visited by people and dignitaries from all four corners of the world – who have all kinds of dietary requirements. We recently had an Indian group on board who were mostly vegetarian and fish consumers ONLY. This allowed me to experiment with almost all my spices and vegetable products. Very exciting!
Please describe your typical day on The Blue Train?
My day starts at 5am at The Blue Train lounge kitchen.
I start baking and preparing pre departure snacks. I then move on board.
At 08h50 on departure, I start preparing for brunch which is served from 10h30 until 14h30.
We then start preparing high tea which is served at 15h30
I take an hour break and refresh myself to start preparing for dinner from 16h35.
Dinner is served from 19h30 and finishes at 23h15 (should there be more than 42 guests on board).
What is your favourite thing about your job?
Meeting different from all over the world – and especially when I get a personal request from visitors to prepare a “special” South African traditional dish for them.
Wow that's a long day, what do you do to relax?
Watching TV (Master Chef), sports or reading a good cooking / recipe book.
Thanks Esther it sounds like food is more than just a job for you and I hope I get the chance to taste some of your dishes one of these days.
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