By Esha Chhabra
“What’s the hardest part about cooking on a train?”
“Chopping. The knife is moving, the train is moving – it’s just a bad combination.”
Sam Crocker, 26, is the chef on board the Millennial Trains Project, a transcontinental journey across America in 1950s train cars. It’s his first time cooking in a moving vehicle – let alone a vintage one.
“You think there would be a vent in here somewhere? It’s a kitchen!” He opens the oven and a plume of smoke greets him. “I feel like I’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes today.” He closes the door, and then smiles. ”It’s not that bad,” he says, as he looks through the window. The train is chugging along through the Colorado Rockies. Picturesque, to say the least.
In a cubicle-sized kitchen, though, Crocker and his sous-chef, John Mitsch, prep meals for approximately 40 people daily. The Millennial Trains Project is not a vacation; rather, 24 Millennials have crowdfunded $5,000 to ride across America, from San Francisco to DC, while pursuing their passion projects – sustainable energy, public health, transportation, data innovation and so on.
Crocker and Mitsch have the task of feeding this enterprising group. At each stop, the pair go to nearby farmers markets to collect local seasonal produce. The meals are anything but “road” food; lamb burgers with beetroot yoghurt, Sam’s famous mustardy-potato salad, corn soup with basil oil, roasted carrots, honeyed yams, and braised beef.
Crocker and Mitsch are indicative of the Millennials on board; taking risks, seeking adventures, and pursuing passions. Crocker worked at the acclaimed Jean Georges restaurant as a line cook for several years before the train journey; now, he’s going back to New York City, with a renewed passion for food and travel. He’s even warmed to the idea of cooking on trains.
Mitsch, 23, relished the train journey, napping and nibbling across the country. He wants to do an apprenticeship, and learn how to make artisanal products like breads and cheeses. ”Know any places in Vermont?” – he laughs.
Both are bent on quality. The fridge houses some unconventional snacks and scraps left over from the meals; wedges of Parmesan, slices of prosciutto, chunks of dark chocolate… Crocker experiments with the leftovers, turning sourdough bread, dark chocolate, olive oil and some Maldon sea salt into dessert. ”It’s a rustic dish in Spain – our peanut butter and jelly.” On the train it’s lapped up, described as ‘decadent’. The participants often sneak their way into the kitchen for seconds.
Crocker is happy to comply; “if you’re gonna eat, make it worthwhile.”