Dinner: Impossible, Sierra RR on Food Network...

John Barnhill Feb 9, 2007

  1. John Barnhill

    John Barnhill TrainBoard Member


    Photo here: [www.modbee.com]

    Caption reads: Robert Irvine (The Food Network photo)

    MODESTO, CA -- He's cooked for four presidents, British royalty and celebrities.

    But highly regarded chef Robert Irvine never has faced a challenge like this. He has eight hours to prepare and serve a gourmet meal aboard the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train.

    Food Network will air the challenge in the half-hour "Dinner: Impossible," starring Irvine as a cross between a culinary James Bond and MacGyver, at 22:30 Feb. 14.

    Irvine and his two sous chefs are challenged to deliver the five-course meal for 140 passengers aboard the luxury locomotive in Oakdale. The British native is flown in on a Friday night and told his mission Saturday morning: Devise a menu, shop and have served hors d'oeuvres, salad, soup and entrees by the time the train reaches the halfway point in its four-hour round-trip journey.

    It's not bad enough that Irvine is under the gun in a tight, galley-style kitchen, with the train pitching to and fro, but train conductor Randy McTaggert is told to keep the pressure on Irvine.

    "He was encouraged to antagonize the chefs," says Chris Hart, Sierra Railroad president, "He was told by the producers to be kind of stern with the chefs and don't make it any easier on him."

    Irvine is no stranger to pressure-cooker situations. He worked as director of culinary operations and executive chef at Trump Taj Mahal and Caesars Atlantic City and serves as director of food services and executive chef at Resorts Atlantic City. He often traveled in the private entourage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

    Photo here: [www.modbee.com]

    Caption reads: The Sierra Railroad Dinner Train approaches Cooperstown. The Sierra has been used for a variety of commercials and photo shoots. Most recently, Aflac insurance filmed a silent movie-style commercial. It also was host to 'High Noon,' Gary Cooper's iconic spin as a lone-crusader sheriff. The 1952 film, also featuring Grace Kelly, won four Oscars. MSN recently listed the train as a dramatic place to pop the question and score the girl. (Sierra Railroad photo)

    Formed in 1897, the Sierra Railway Co. of California connected the valley to gold country. In the 1970s, the Sierra Railroad launched an industry when it operated the nation's first dinner train. That service was discontinued when the Crocker family sold the railroad in 1982. It was purchased in 1995 by a group led by Mike Hart, who restored the track, brought in new equipment, improved shipping and saved the railroad, according to its Web site. Four years later, Chris Hart joined his older brother with the goal of bringing tourism back to the railroad, and the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train was born.

    "I strive to provide a memorable combination of scenery, fine dining and entertainment aboard a moving train," says the younger Hart, who lives in Modesto.

    He's made the train a draw for 30,000 people a year, from corporate outings to school field trips to tour operators to weddings and reunion parties.

    Sierra Railroad and the Harts' Sacramento River Train are among five dinner trains in California and 89 in North America.

    The Food Network chose the Oakdale operation, says Hart, for its quality service and rich history.

    "The more we spoke, the more it just seemed like a perfect fit with them," he says.

    The excitement is apparent as the conductor signals, "All aboard," and the passengers are ushered into a bygone era and escorted to reserved seats.

    The day's cares wash away as the train lumbers out of Oakdale and heads toward Warnerville in the Sierra foothills. Twisted Oak Winery owner Jeff Stai begins pouring wine after the passengers settle in.

    The train heads east from Oakdale and rumbles past a cemetery, back yards and orchards and up Sand Hill to the rolling expanse of cattle country in eastern Stanislaus County.

    "It's very rare to find such unspoiled country like this in California," Chris Hart says. "It's the wide open unspoiled countryside of the Stanislaus River valley. There's cattle. There's horses. There's coyote. You really get a sense of getting away from the city and city life. It's what I love about it.

    Photo here: [www.modbee.com]

    Caption reads: Every table is a window seat aboard the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train. (Sierra Railroad photo)

    "The route that we follow has only a few country roads crossing the track here and there. For a long portion of the trip, we're going through land only accessible by train."

    The excursion pauses at its midpoint, and the engine is prepared for the trek home. Then the rhythmic rumbling begins again.

    The service is unhurried, providing ample opportunity to converse and savor the meal while watching the unfolding scenery.

    Diners enjoy a meal featuring a lightly dressed salad with walnuts; mushrooms stuffed with aged goat cheese; corn and shrimp chowder; a choice of roasted rack of lamb with a mango purée, roasted pork with a crab risotto, a flat-iron steak with roasted potatoes, a vegetable napoleon with tomatoes, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese or a chicken breast on a bed of polenta; and apple-raisin crumb cake with granola topping and a banana cream.

    In the kitchen, it's another story. A mix-up with salt and sugar means a dish has to be tossed and started again. A second appetizer never materializes.

    "This has been one of the hardest things we've done, because of the closeness of the quarters and the movement of the train," Irvine says during the filming.

    Hart, who's accustomed to the train, agrees.

    "The train is moving about 15 miles per hour. It is difficult. It's hard on the chefs. You're having to keep your balance on a moving train. Plus, because we're on a train, you have a hot, small, confined kitchen that is difficult to cook in," he says.

    Irvine's crew was given a morning to prepare for the night's dinner. Normally, Hart says of the railroad's operation, "we will do one day of prep for a weekend's worth of trains (three or four trains), and three to six hours of cooking the day of the trip."

    When the 32-mile trip ends, the railroad's staff members gather outside. They offer a hand down the steps and chime in together as they bid everyone farewell.

    "We try to do a lot of things that are very unique," says Hart. "I like to find ways to go beyond people's expectations and create something special for them."

    The dinner train is one of many excursions offered by Sierra Railroad.

    The others include a murder-mystery dinner theater, a Sunday brunch, a chocolate decadence brunch, a Wild West luncheon train, a rail-and-raft summer trip and party trains.

    Sierra Railroad offers two levels of service. On the silver tier, most trips are $49 during daytime and $54 to $58 at night, plus tax and service. The tip is included in the price. Hart says half his guests choose the silver level.

    Then there's the gold level upgrade.

    For an evening trip, an extra $25 brings priority boarding, premium seating (private table) additional appetizers, champagne toast with the train manager and a boxcar with a private bartender. Also, all nonalcoholic beverages are included in the price, and every woman receives a rose.

    "While we can add additional cars for special events and charters, we typically have a 200-guest capacity with five dining compartments, two kitchens, a lounge car and power car," says Hart. "A trip on the Sierra typically lasts three hours." - Sharon K. Ghag, The Modesto Bee
  2. fitz

    fitz Staff Member

    John, I read that earlier and discovered that we actually receive the food channel on our little mom and pop cable company. Plan to tape it. Did you also see that the WARM guys in Barstow are going to start bus tours between the restored Harvey House and depot in Barstow and the restored depot at Kelso? If it works out they intend to approach BNSF and UP about running trains between the two spots. I would love to do that, but doubt it will happen in my lifetime. Hmmm, maybe 3751 could pull those trains.......................
  3. BoxcabE50

    BoxcabE50 Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

    I'm sure this suggestion would instantly receive a loud "no way!"


    Boxcab E50
  4. John Barnhill

    John Barnhill TrainBoard Member

    Saw the post but didn't really read it. I very seriously doubt that UP and BNSF would give these guys any track time. So many trains already run the area.

    I used to watch the food network all the time when I had it available. Would be a neat episode to catch with the Sierra involved. :D

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