Rocky Mountaineer, Canada: Is this the world's tastiest rail journey?

"It's like a symphony," says executive chef Jean Pierre Guerin. "Since we work in such close quarters, organisation and choreography are crucial, everything has its place, we have to work quickly and neatly while preparing food for our guests."

One look inside the Rocky Mountaineer's Goldleaf Service kitchen during the lunchtime rush and it's clear Chef Guerin isn't kidding. With the train rocking back and forth, a team of three chefs work feverishly in a focused, almost bizarrely composed fashion. It's the footwork that strikes me, practically balletic in its precision, each man manoeuvring around the other, never so much as brushing shoulders amid a sea of boiling pots and pans.

Inside the adjacent dining car, you'd never know any of this was happening. There is no hollering, no hurling of saucepans or smoke wafting from beneath the kitchen door, the ambience is a model of serenity and sophistication.

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In booths furnished with pristine silverware and white linen table cloths, we study the a la carte menu, the choices more befitting of a high end city restaurant than a train lurching through some of Canada's wildest alpine territory.

Dishes range from crispy wonton inukshuk; a layered concoction of farm fresh local vegetables with wonton crisps, finished with balsamic vinegar reduction, garlic and herb coulis, to Albacore tuna seared and served over sautéed peppers, fennel, tomatoes, black olives, capers and seasonal vegetables.

None of this happened by accident. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, The Rocky Mountaineer has logistics, including cuisine, down to a fine art.

Overseeing it are executive chefs Jean Pierre Guerin and Frederic Couton, both of whom trained in Michelin starred restaurants before switching to a mobile kitchen. Having worked as an award-winning chef in Vancouver and around British Columbia, Chef Guerin began his career in five star hotels in Paris, Canada and the Caribbean while Chef Couton - born and raised in the French Alps - honed his skills in the Hilton hotels of Paris, Geneva, Montreal and Bangkok. Though it all appears seamless, extensive thought and preparation goes into the development and implementation of the menu. Each year, before the start of the next season (the Rocky Mountaineer now operates only between April and October to maximise daylight hours) several of the senior chefs will meet for a weekend to brainstorm new ideas.

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"We talk about food, we cook for each other, we have a cognac or a glass of wine for inspiration and we repeat that process until we have several new dishes to consider. The best of them are then presented to the management team for the ultimate decision" says Chef Guerin, though he does admit certain favourites will stay year-in, year-out.

Much of the emphasis is about using local ingredients, in particular British Columbia and Alberta through which all of the Rocky Mountaineer routes traverse. This of course means plenty of fresh seafood and premium beef; dishes such as 'Wild BC salmon pan-seared and lightly roasted, served with shaved fennel, smoked sea salt, old fashioned mustard vinaigrette and roasted potato salad' are the kind of classics that according to Guerin, will not be going anywhere.

The wines too, have a local emphasis, most of them from the Okanagan Valley, among Canada's fastest growing wine regions. Located in the southern interior of British Columbia, the valley is known for its arid landscapes and dry, sunny climate, perfect for producing top notch merlots, pinot noirs, chardonnays and pinot gris.

British Columbia as a whole has experienced something of an explosion in wine production ever since a free trade agreement was signed in 1990, allowing European style grapes to be planted. Back then, there were less than twenty wineries in the province, this year there are over 270, nearly half of them in the Okanagan Valley. But with prohibitively high export costs, many of these wines are still tricky to come by outside of BC.

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In spite of the fine dining scene on board the Rocky Mountaineer, the service is unpretentious. Many of the hosts are young adventurers and lifestylers; the type to regularly divide their time between rock climbing, travelling the globe or snowboarding between bouts of seasonal work. Most of them have been selected more for their gregarious personality and ability to work long hours as part of a team rather than a background fawning over investment tycoons at The Dorchester.

"It's definitely a very uniquely Canadian style of service, we like people, we're open and we want to give but we're not going to behave like an arrogant maitre'd," says Tania Massicotte, who has already worked several seasons as a host. "It's not stuffy, it's a multi-dimensional job that appeals to a wide variety of people."

Inside the dining car, the atmosphere is never the same twice. In the Rocky Mountain Trench, the train is closely flanked by enveloping woodland as a thunderstorm kicks in; rain lashing the windows, lightning flickering as we sip bold reds. Other times, we circle turquoise glacial lakes on a crisp morning, eagles and Ospreys hovering above the water's surface as a smell of fresh croissants and coffee fills the carriage. Though I'm travelling alone, I'm regularly invited to dine with other guests at their table where I listen to their stories and motivations for coming on board. Some have been lured by the train's reputation for high-end food and wine.

Others are train obsessives who've previously embarked on other rail odysseys through India or Russia, while some are simply checking off another long awaited bucket list item.

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It should be said that with two levels of service on board; Goldleaf and Silverleaf, a la carte dining in a designated car is only for those who opt for the former. While Goldleaf offers bi-level carriages with upper viewing domes and a higher level of culinary service, those in silver still enjoy a single level glass domed coach as well as meals and drinks served at their seat.

The train's four routes traverse some of the country's most untamed regions, winding through deserts, rainforests, alpine peaks and raging rivers. There is history, countless tales of outlaws, pioneering explorers and gold rush fever. There is wildlife; grizzly bears and birds of prey hovering high above gaping canyons and glacial rivers.

But meal times are the anchor, the main event, the time passengers congregate to trade yarns over fine wine and superbly crafted dishes.

"Food is one of the four S's that make up our journey - Scenery, Sweet and Savoury, Service and Socialisation," says chef Guerin.

"It's an unbelievable experience to enjoy finely prepared meals while watching awe-inspiring scenery pass by. And knowing the meals are prepared with local ingredients makes it a truly west coast experience."

FIVE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER DISHES

Last pike'd beef short ribs

Alberta beef short ribs slowly braised in Okanagan Valley Merlot. Served with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Alberta Prairie Risotto

Creamy prairie barley "risotto style" with roasted button mushrooms, grape tomatoes and wilted greens.

Coastal crab cake

A fresh pan-seared West Coast crab cake served on a bed of quinoa and mint tabouleh, finished with a light mustard seed dressing.

Triple A Alberta strip loin

Alberta beef strip loin pan seared and cooked to your preference. Served with a horseradish infused sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and local seasonal vegetables.

Gold Rush scramble

Eggs scrambled with smoked salmon, topped with kelp caviar and lemon chive crème fraiche.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See canada.travel

GETTING THERE

Qantas offers three direct flights a week between Sydney and Vancouver during the US summer and winter periods. See qantas.com

TOURING THERE

For 2016, Rocky Mountaineer offers more than 65 vacation packages and four unique rail routes across three levels of service. The newly expanded three-day Rainforest to Gold Rush route starts at $2624 while the The First Passage from the West starts at $1898 per person. See rockymountaineer.com/en_AU

The writer was a guest of the Rocky Mountaineer.

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