Like Cinderella, I spend my days toiling in a kitchen. Not because I have an evil stepmother, but because I am a chef. Not the kind of chef that you see on TV with pancake makeup and perfect hair, but the kind with the smell of charcoal in my hair and that dewy look that only working around a 12-burner gas range can provide.
Late one night, I sat down to open the mail and found a travel brochure for the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express. I poured myself another glass of wine and imagined myself basking in ’20s-style luxury in the company of poets, writers, lovers, and libertines. For the first time in my life, I picked up the phone and went for it.
Before I knew it, I was standing on a train platform in Italy awaiting the arrival of the legendary train. Because of my spontaneity, I missed the celebratory departure from Venice and met the train in Verona. My heart skipped a beat. I knew that my fairy tale adventure had begun the second I caught a glimpse of the distinctive navy blue carriages as they rolled around the curve toward the station. Within moments, my life was transformed into a world of glamour, luxury, and reflections on times gone by as porters disappeared with my luggage and whisked me to my private compartment.
Once ensconced in my gleaming redwood-paneled room with polished brass fixtures, my porter Mighele told me that I would be included in the second luncheon seating and that my wishes were his command for the next 28 hours. (Somebody pinch me!) He then introduced me to my elegant space. A tiny table folded out from the wall and two narrow doors opened to reveal a small bathroom sink with a mirror and drinking glasses and a carafe secured to the wall. Before I could ask about the bed, Mighele assured me that he would wave his magic wand while I dined that evening and my blue bargello-patterned banquette would be transformed into two cozy bunks.
At 1:30 p.m., I proceeded to the first dining car. Tables were topped with white linen cloths, accented with red roses in bud vases. The upholstered soft gray armchairs complemented the deep redwood walls inlaid with marquetry bouquets. Fine china, heavy-cut crystal, and French silverware defined each place setting.
The suggested menu-chicken, rabbit, and morels in a pastry wallet; John Dory with artichokes and aniseed sauce served with baked tomatoes and zucchini; iced raspberry dessert with cherry coulis-was my introduction to the indulgence and elegance to follow. A 1994 French white Bordeaux and attentive service made it very easy to leave my kitchen rags behind and slip into this fantasy world of riches.
Over lunch I learned that the train had reached its zenith in the ’20s; in the ’30s, the Orient Express fell victim to air travel; and in the early ’70s, service was discontinued. In 1977, James Sherwood, owner of Orient-Express Hotels, bought two original sleeper cars at a Sotheby’s sale, and since then, 35 historic first-class carriages, Pullmans, sleepers, and restaurant cars have been bought and authentically restored at workshops in England, Belgium, and Germany. The train now runs a regularly scheduled service through the breathtaking Alpine scenery of Austria and Switzerland and passes from Venice through Innsburck, Zurich, and Paris. (The original Orient Express journey from Paris to Istanbul is offered once each year.) The train crosses the English Channel at Boulogne, where passengers are transferred by hovercraft to a landing in Dover and then by coach (Mercedes with leather seats) and driven to Folkstone, where the journey toward London continues aboard luxurious British Pullman carriages.
After lunch, intrigued by the train’s history and lavish appointments, I decided to go exploring. I found two more dining cars (one decorated with ebony walls and frosted art deco glass inserts and the other with an oriental theme) and other compartment cars until I ended up in the luxurious bar car-the place to people watch. But the wine and heavy lunch made me long for a nap so I settled back into my cozy bed and watched the scenery change from the Dolomites to the Italian Alps. Along the way I spotted numerous vineyards and an occasional castle tucked into the hills. Mighele appeared to fortify me with tea on a small tray with a china teapot and a delightful selection of delicate pastries.
Just as a mechanic can’t resist opening the hood of a vintage car, I had to see how these gastronomic miracles were accomplished. I wandered into one of the dining cars to meet the French chef. Once we had established credentials, Christian Bodiguel gave me a tour of the two small kitchens where each item is secured or built with the movement of the train in mind. He also invited me to join the kitchen staff on the platform in Paris the following morning to watch how the kitchen was restocked and all food inspected.
In the early evening I made my way down to the bar car. A pianist was playing soft melodies while the crowd enjoyed pre-dinner drinks and conversation in several different languages. The brochure had been adamant that travelers dress in formal attire for the evening and everyone complied. Men were dressed in tuxedos or dark suits (one Scotsman wore the traditional evening kilt jacket and plaid wool slacks), and women were in long dresses, dinner suits, and evening slacks.
My 9:30 p.m. seating was announced, and I made my way back to culinary heaven: a terrine of duck fois gras, fillet of New Zealand lamb with braised fennel and rosemary jus, broccoli with almonds, roasted potatoes, and a selection of French cheeses. What I thought was the grand finale, a lemon baba with pistachio cream, was followed by petit fours that were passed with coffee.
After a nightcap in the bar, I returned to my compartment and was quickly put to sleep by the rocking of the train. I opened my eyes to gray skies over the waterlogged countryside of eastern France. Mighele materialized with a tray of juice, coffee, hot tea, and pastries intended to tide me over until brunch at 11:30.
The train pulled into Gare L’est in Paris at 9 a.m., and I met up with the chef and the purveyors who were lined up to restock the kitchen. I descended to the platform to watch the chef and sous chef inspect each box of fresh vegetables, meat, and seafood.
After our brief stop, the train headed west on the last leg of our journey. I returned to my compartment and gazed upon the wheat-colored fields of the French countryside contrasted by a glorious Impressionist’s blue sky. Over brunch of scrambled eggs with truffles, lobster in clarified butter, and a delicious tarte Tatin, I was convinced that this was the life I was meant to live.
After crossing the channel, a five-piece band serenaded us as we boarded the British Pullman carriages. There was no luxury lost-the elegant interiors of rosewood paneling, ash, mahogany, and exquisite marquetry were decorated in traditional umber and cream. But the talk of the train was the fabulous mosaic-tiled floor in the restrooms, so after a flute of champagne, I wandered down to take a peek.
The lovely English countryside rolled by as I was served the most outrageous high tea: small tea sandwiches were followed by an endless array of scones with clotted cream and jam, small tartlets, cookies, and a variety of cakes.
As we pulled into Victoria Station, I couldn’t help but feel that my carriage was turning into a pumpkin all too soon. And though the return to the other side of the table was inevitable (and I did not meet my prince), it was a fantasy fulfilled.
Karen Cassady, former co-owner of L’Epicurien, is a freelance chef and travel writer
|Photo: Courtesy of the Orient Express|