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One on One: Jeffrey Martin
By Steven Hedlund
February 01, 2008
Working in a restaurant kitchen is demanding, both
mentally. It requires dexterity, attentiveness,
vigor - all in a room that's packed to the gills with cooking
equipment and sometimes conflicting personalities. Now imagine
working under such conditions in a 10-by-85-foot dining car
traveling at 60 mph. It's not easy, but Jeffrey Martin thrives
under such conditions.
As executive chef of GrandLuxe Rail Journeys (formerly
American Orient Express), Martin, 33, oversees the dining
program and manages a 20-person kitchen staff on a
140-passenger luxury train that offers two- to 10-day trips.
Among his multiple responsibilities is sourcing predominately
fresh seafood, so establishing credible relationships with
seafood vendors from Charleston, S.C., to Seattle is
Martin's affinity for seafood dates to his childhood in
Yazoo City, Miss., where he grew up on a steady diet of catfish
and Gulf shrimp. He even worked on a catfish farm one summer.
Martin's family raised livestock and crops for a living, so
naturally he studied agriculture at Mississippi State
University. But after three-and-a-half years, Martin realized
farming wasn't his bag, so he took a job as a dishwasher in his
hometown, working his way up to kitchen manager within a
Martin moved to Portland, Ore., in 1998 and graduated from
Western Culinary Institute. After his 12-month stint at WCI,
Martin landed an internship at Dickie Brennan's Palace Café in
Orleans, working under chefs Darin Nesbit and Gus Martin,
who he says taught him the restaurant business. Martin returned
to Portland to work as a chef for Bishop Morris
Place-Northwest, a retirement community, and Majestic America
Line, which operates six luxury riverboats, before being named
executive chef of GrandLuxe in 2005.
I spoke with Martin in December, two months after he moved
to the Denver area, where GrandLuxe is based.
HEDLUND: How important
is the train's dining
MARTIN: It's huge - we have a very captive audience. On
cruise ships there are a lot of things to do - dance, gamble.
For us, there are the tours, and then there's the food. [Food]
is one of the focal points of the train. It has to be superb.
It's my responsibility to make sure 140 passengers are happy,
plus 55 crewmembers.
of the menu is seafood?
On average, we're looking at 50 percent beef, 35 to 40
percent seafood and 10 to 15 percent poultry. But it varies
from night to night. It's mostly fresh seafood. The only thing
I get frozen are spiny lobster tails and shrimp. We'll run
certain menus for certain trips. For example, if we're up in
Seattle I'll do halibut and salmon. If we're in the mountains
I'll do trout and steelhead. If we're down in Louisiana I'll do
grouper, snapper, redfish, pompano, crawfish and brown shrimp.
That's my favorite trip [from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans]
because I get to cook the food I grew up on. I really enjoy
working with shrimp.
How do you plan the menu?
I plan the menu a week ahead of time. It takes several days
to track down all my vendors and get all the products I need.
Sometimes it comes in and sometimes it doesn't. We have only
about 24 hours when we're in town. When something comes up
short, I have to come up with something different. More
perishable seafood products like tuna I'll run the first night,
because I know it's going to [spoil] a lot faster than, say,
halibut or salmon.
What's it like working
in such a tight kitchen?
I have one freezer onboard. I have one walk-in cooler where
I keep my dairy and produce. I have one double-door, reach-in
cooler. [Seafood] is put in perforated pans and iced down.
The kitchen is like a shoebox. But everyone gets along well.
Because if you don't, you usually don't last. I have staff
members who have been with the company for years because they
like the lifestyle and the people they work with. My turnover
rate is very low compared to a land-based restaurant, which is
kind of hard to believe. I think I turned three cooks last
year, and that was it. There's no room for bickering or
arguing. It's not like you go home after work. On the train,
you see your co-workers waiting in line for a shower or walking
down the hall. Everybody gets along, and they do their job
well. I'm very proud of
Are your customers more
adventurous eaters because
Most of our customers are pretty perceptive to modern food
trends, which I wouldn't expect with our age group [retirees].
Take amberjack. Most people aren't familiar with that fish at
all. But we can go through 20 pounds a night. I was really
shocked at what people were willing to try when I came onboard.
I thought this was a meat-and-potatoes crowd. It is, but they
don't pass up a nice piece of pheasant, duck or seared
Do the kids on the train eat seafood?
A lot of kids nowadays are willing to try what their parents
eat. It just depends on the age group. I find that kids 10 and
under want the basics - fries, chicken tenders, maybe a burger.
But kids 11 and up eat seafood quite a bit; they'll eat
snapper, they'll eat shrimp. They'll try a lot of things that
they probably wouldn't try if mom and dad were cooking it at
What's your biggest challenge?
I plan the menu, I order my products, then my vendor calls
me and says, "Hey, your halibut's not coming." So I ask him
what else he has. Working with a fish I may not have cooked in
a while [is challenging].
What do you enjoy the most
about your job?
I enjoy being different places. It's like Yasser Arafat - he
never slept in the same place twice. I enjoy the challenges
that come with this job. There's no other job that I've had
where things change daily. There are so many interesting people
that you meet, be it a salesman, a passenger or a
Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at