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One on One: Jeffrey Martin

By Steven Hedlund
February 01, 2008

Working in a restaurant kitchen is demanding, both physically and 
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 paramount.

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 year.

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 New 
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 experience?

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.

What percentage 
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 
my staff.

Are your customers more 
adventurous eaters because 
they're on vacation?

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 tuna.


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 home.


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 crewmember.


Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com



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