In summer of 2014, I had the opportunity to take part in a unique art-meets-food-meets-surprpise-experience that involved Frédéric Morin and Kid Koala, both creative and well known Montrealers.
The piece was slated for an online publication which has since closed its Toronto chapter, but the fun from that evening's activities still live on in memories, a Flickr gallery, and writer John Allemang's great Globe and Mail artilce.
My notes, Fred's quotes, and a selection of images can be found below. Do check out the Flickr gallery (and captions) for Fred's creative takes on nostalgic train cuisine.
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Was slated for: July 2014
Gallery: Luminato: The Lost Train
Globe and Mail piece by John Allemang: Food meets theatre in a delicious time warp at Luminato's The Lost Train
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Last summer, 96 passengers were taken on a mysterious train-meets-music-and-food adventure as part of Luminato Festival’s secret 3-day long The Last Train installation. The collaborative project between composer and turntablist Eric San (also known as Kid Koala) and chef Frédéric (Fred) Morin of Montreal’s famed Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and Le Vin Papillon was a nostalgic and sensory stimulating mind trip that delighted as much as it surprised. Festivalgoers who signed up for the limited journey only knew of their assigned meet-up time at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel’s clock tower. All else – from being whisked away in a stretch limo on a 35km trek outside the city, the original soundtrack and narrative pieced together by San they listened to on their ride, to a surprising dinner on board Rapido Trains Inc. – was a secret.
What the participants learned, in addition to how having blindfolded trust (no, seriously, guests were blindfolded in the latter part of the journey) can lead to delicious rewards, is that Morin has a serious love for trains (there’s even a whole chapter in
The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts [RS: I believe it’s quoted as an obsession in the book]), and that he can be easily coerced into, say, an off-site music-meets-art-and-food event.
The full production – hosted in a full-sized replica coach from a 1980s VIA Rail Canada train tucked in the basement of a Thornhill home, below.
A total of twelve 70km-journeys were taken during the three-day installation, for a total of 840km covered.
One of the notable narrated quotes from Kid Koala's soundtrack to our destination: "Riding on the train you get to see the country differently. You get to meet people from all across the country... The world actually. You get to know people... And appreciate who they are."
Trip experience: Attendees listened to personal shuffles that alternated between train sounds, personal narratives from a cast of train loving characters, chimes of clinking champagne glasses while watching the green and concrete skyline of the Don Valley roll by.
Guests dine in a life size model train car that took 4.5 years and 2,500 hours to construct.
Kid Koala (whose DJ name actually originated from Koala Springs – a beverage that was normally found in his childhood home) played train and railway themed tunes from every era from the passenger car’s vestibule.
Morin cooked the entire menu – a luxurious and whimsical feast that would rival Anthony Bourdain’s gluttonous spread on No Reservations and put most first class travelers’ meals to sham – from scratch in the home’s kitchen, situated right above the railcar.
When asked about the experience, Morin commented: “So far the three days people seem to be very happy, and that is very nice.”
According to San, Morin literally “freaked out” when he saw the railway car, accurately ID-ing the tables, chairs, and authentic carpet from 1982. Morin explains: “[I’m] somebody who’s emotionally attached to trains and that era. And if you’ve traveled more recently – the old Canadian – these colours are relevant: the red carpet, the wood paneling… This is a museum piece in my opinion. I’ve always said that I’m going to be that crazy man that has a caboose in his yard.”
On romanticism of rail travel in The Art of Living: “Call me nostalgic, but it’s sad to think of what trains used to be, what they used to serve. Can you image a time when every aspect of train travel was Sunday’s best? Now the food is equal to that of what you get on airlines, and wi-fi is considered providing service.” To combat this, Luminato travelers were treated to a luxurious Orient Express-inspired spread.
While The Art of Living teased that modern train trips lack the high quality food and stocked bars of yesteryear, Lost Train attendees were initially greeted with a snack bag of single serving Pringles to enjoy with sparkling wine on their ride up.
The caviar course, presented in a large caviar tin, was a nod to the Trans-Siberian express, while beets were a riff of the staple smoked meat number normally served on trains. Crispy “drumstick” of vegetables, wasn’t simply a tasty bean and vegetable croquet in the “facsimile of a chicken drumstick” but also written with the “ridiculous menu descriptions” normally found on train menus.
Tribute to plastic packaged foods was given through a hot from the oven financier. There was also Jello, “because there was always Jello on the train.”
This wasn’t Morin’s first foray into cooking recreated classics; last year he participated in the Food and Wine Festival in Miami with Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, amongst other to recreated classic dishes from the Transatlantic menu. Morin tells us that the experience was a lot of fun “because the American gentleman from Christofle brought a whole private collection of silverware: the big champagne bath that can put 50 bottles in it, the lobster press, etc. It was very impressive. It’s deep and nostalgic. In our profession some people are futuristic. Maybe they’re a fan of Star Trek as kids. And the other half are sickly nostalgic of the past: they want to be out on the farm, out in a field, be in the trains or in the boats – I’m part of that.”
On inspiration and plagiarism: “You’ll find your source [of inspiration] from somewhere. Everyone’s on Instagram nowadays and it’s kind of a plague on the world. You can take a picture of a dinner and everyone can recreate that dinner. But I like old menus, because there’s only three or four words that describe a dish and you’re like, ‘what are they doing? How did they do it?’ I find that way interesting and you can’t be accused of plagiarizing.”
Cooking vs. music: “I find that there’s a lot of similarity with cutting and pasting with music, and scratching, and a few essential ingredients, it’s not about how you invent the original beat it’s how you assemble it on the go, you know? There was a vegetarian at a table earlier, who had an egg allergy. It was a last minute request, so it was interesting challenge to adapt to a dietary restriction on the fly.
On the new generation of cooks: “It’s a difficult situation where young people go into cooking thinking they’re going to be like doctors: they want a starting salary… and it’s sad. I have three kids and I’m going to do my best to steer them away from the restaurant but if they do, I’m going to send them to stage with this disc jockey [points to San]. We have this mutual agreement that if we need to steer [our children] away from DJ-ing or cooking then…”
The restaurant is a stage: “I’m a very firm believer of the context of food. When you’re somewhere else, the food might taste the same but you might perceive it differently. A restaurant is like a theatre stage. It’s interesting that the restaurant fascinates so many people.”
Art and trains: “There’s a great intricacy between artists and trains. Winslow Homer used to travel by train to paint all his St Lawrence Valley paintings; there was more than one artist that travelled by train and talked about it. I would suggest you [travel on all] these trains before they pass away, but I would also suggest that you pack a lunch.”
On reservations: “There’s a big thing in the food media about restaurant reservations and taking a deposit. We have such a high cancellation rate in the restaurant business. We’re very good at calling people and stuff, but if we didn’t do that, we’d be half full some nights. You see in a lot of cases where people are dentists, doctors, etc. people who should be understanding. But some people when they confirm on the phone say, ‘Do I sound like I’m not coming?!?’ and we’re like, well… it’s hard to tell.”
Changing food scene: “20 years ago a restaurant would satisfy everyone with pasta and pink sauce, and everyone would rave about. But nowadays the meat has to have a name and three-digit days of aging. But everything has a price. So we created a clientele that knows exactly what they’re talking about; a clientele that knows exactly what they want to eat and drink. The price didn’t increase but the food cost has. Sometimes it’s a weird business to be in.”
Unrelated and cool fact:
San shares that one of the great moments during the three-day installation was having former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson join as one of the guests. Not simply because she is a great lady, but the fact that she seemed to have a knack at the turntable! She bested all of us. So very cool.