If you missed the premiere of Jonathan Phang Gourmet Trains on DSTV’s Travel channel (179) Tuesdays 21:00 you missed a visual treat filled with exotic locations, gourmet food and Jonathan’s incredible sense of humour.
Jonathan says he would never previously have considered travelling by train because they never appealed to him, not even iconic luxury trains. He’s quite candid that he’s never understood the appeal of trains but now says he can even appreciate why why people would spend their lives saving up to travel the world on trains because there a nostalgic charm about traveling by train. He’s happily converted to a new mode of travel, with the proviso that it is luxury travel and gourmet food.
When pressed for further details he adds that when you travel on the Orient Express it feels like you’re stepping back in time. You’re immersed in so much tradition that you feel like part of history, and that makes it a truly remarkable and unforgettable travelling experience. Trains could easily have been swept aside with a bygone era, but the people who work on them have kept the love of traveling by trains alive.
Jonathan adds, “The staff are just as excited as the passengers about the journey. You have one staff member all yourself, and he looks after your every whim. I felt like a movie star. The train is beautifully restored, and the staff and the food are fantastic. Travelling on a train like that is a truly unique experience.”
Talking about the destinations Jonathan has visited, he says that he found Venice almost peculiar yet incredibly beautiful. It has an extraordinary way of life because the inhabitants have to deal with water instead of streets. It was in Venice that he met a woman living in the Palazzo who gave him a peek into the lives of people living on the Grand Canal. He says it was like stepping back in time because every item in her house was an antique of museum standard. It was example of how the other half live.
Jonathan also recalls an amusing story about a man who runs a seafood restaurant who went fishing every morning, then gets everyone drunk and fries fish all night in his restaurant, “He wouldn’t let us leave. I told him, “I’ve got to get up at 7am and its 2.30 am now!” That night set the tone for the series. It was a whirlwind of feeling constantly over full, but it was impossible to resist!”
He also got on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, easily the most historic of trains. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought, “Is it going to be like a movie? It can’t be.” But it was! It was fairly cramped for someone my size, but the attention to detail was amazing. I thought, “Am I going to be able to cope without a bathroom?” before discovering that this beautifully designed wardrobe in my cabin opened to reveal a sink!”
Jonathan has a mischievous side to him because he says there was also a piano bar; and, he loves a piano bar, because he says he was desperate to lie on top of it and sing, “Makin’ Whoopee!” Fortunately, he didn’t, but says he did end up crooning along to a whole load of show tunes like “Autumn Leaves” from an era that really suited the train.
Nobody says it better than Jonathan, so in his own words, here’s my Q&A with Jonathan Phang!
Where did you end up? Paris, which is great. I’ve been going there all my life, and it’s always like going home. We visited an enfant terrible chocolatier who makes incredible sculptures out of chocolate. He was a real character. He makes massive life-size orangutans and gorillas out of chocolate. Not your typical Parisian fondant fancy.
Where to next? Bucharest, and that provided contrasting experiences. You have the sense of a city in transition. You feel there are still remnants of Communism in the air. We met this amazing chef who had been a political troublemaker and put in prison many times for being too outspoken during the Communist era. He said when he came out of jail, he had not seen a lemon for three years, so he started grow his own vegetables and taught himself to cook. He is a real rustic food enthusiast.
So is Romanian cuisine starting from scratch? Yes. There was a whole generation in Romania that had no appreciation of restaurants and no culinary taste. All the national dishes were simply wiped out under Communism. There were no ingredients and no one to eat them. So it is fascinating to see a modern society trying to indulge in a culinary culture that we take for granted. A lot of married couples have their wedding photos taken outside Ceausescu’s Palace, where he committed lot of atrocities. It’s a place that represents something so awful, but they take pride in the fact that they’ve come through that. Ceausescu’s Palace represents the past and they represent the future. Again in Romania I stuffed myself at every available opportunity. Then I got back on the Venice-Simplon train, where it was lovely to see my old chums again!
What was your next destination? Istanbul, which is gorgeous. I thought it would be more traditional, but in fact it is a very, very modern city. It’s like being in the South of France or Beverly Hills – it’s that glitzy. Above all, it’s a wonderful mixture of East and West. They have marvelous contemporary restaurants, which are like the best Michelin-starred restaurant in the West. It is a city I would love to go to again. When I got back on the train, I was put in Agatha Christie’s cabin and started reading her book, Murder on the Orient Express. That was really useful. It helped to place everything and make it all more special and poignant.
Where did you alight next? Budapest. It’s not quite as fairy-tale as Prague, but it’s another beautiful city. The food there is full on. Their philosophy is, “Let’s take a piece of food, fry it in pork fat and then for luck, fry it in duck fat!” Of course, I loved it all, but I’d be the size of an absolute tower block if I lived there! The counters in all the shops are full of three foot long strips of crackling. There is fat wherever you turn. We had one night off and ended up in an all-you-can-eat place. We thought we’d be healthy and have lots of salad. How wrong could we be? It was just more fat!
What was your next port of call? Vienna. That’s another stunning place – the architecture there is quite spectacular. The locals there love to put on white tie and go to balls. In the UK, we take the mickey out of people like that, but the Viennese love all that pomp and circumstance. I cooked with the chef at the National Theatre there, which has a great restaurant. He made a lobster and cabbage dish which sounds like nothing, but it was so delicious. He roasts the lobster shells for a couple of days, and you can’t imagine how gorgeous that tastes. In Vienna, I also had to try a sausage on a street corner – there is nothing like a sausage on a street corner!
You then traveled to the Far East, didn’t you? Yes. I started in Singapore. I’m getting to an age where I like it if a place is clean and functional and has nothing to fear. At my age, that’s nice – I get too upset by mess! But Singapore is still always about food. The street food there is incredible. We went in search of the perfect chili crab. I normally love that, but I have to say I went off it at the rate of knots after I ate eight of them very quickly! A friend of mine then gave us a wonderful dinner party and again we ended up singing show tunes until 3am. There’s a theme emerging here, isn’t there?!
What was your next stop? Penang, and there is nothing clean or sanitised about that city. We went to market there very early in the morning, and it was full of things like goats’ heads. It was a real eye-opener. I’m very open-minded and love trying new things. So I bought something very unusual, a 100-year-old egg, but it was absolutely foul! I can usually eat anything. But there was actually nothing we could do with that egg, so we ended up throwing it off the train!
What was the highlight of that leg of the tour for you? Going to the River Kwai. That was incredibly moving. We went with a much older group of Australian people who were clearly war veterans making a pilgrimage. When you see the famous bridge over the River Kwai, something really hits you. You think, “Oh my God, how many people died here? Tens of thousands.” It dawns on you when you see row upon row of graves of 19-year-old soldiers. That brought me down to earth very quickly. I did shed a tear off screen. That was a very special, very emotional part of my journey. It was the place that moved me most, and I will always remember it.
Where did you head for next? Bangkok. It’s very fast-paced and huge. Travelling through Malaysia where the scenery is beautiful, you suddenly hit this chaos on the outskirts of Bangkok. It is a very interesting contrast. The Thai people are divine and spiritual. Again, the street food is unbelievable. We found this incredible market where I could happily live. If I owned it, I would put a few rooms up for rent so the visitors could stuff their faces, have a lie down and then start again! Everything you could imagine was there, from fruit and veg and seafood to Cantonese barbecue and every sort of curry under the sun. I ate my way through that market. Some of the food, though, was too hot, even for me. I like spicy food, but not like that. It felt like Hades in my mouth!
And then it was back to the UK, wasn’t it? Yes. We went on the British Pullman and the Northern Belle. We traveled to Rutland, where we went to a wonderful bakery and made a lovely artisan loaf. I had a bread-and-butter pudding competition with the head chef, and of course he won. I was experimenting, but you should never do that on telly! Again, I ate like an absolute horse!
Did you then travel on to Kent? Yes. I faced my fear of oysters there. In 1984, Linda Evangelista gave me an oyster in Paris, and I found it deeply unpleasant. I’ve never had one since. In Whitstable, we met this great forager who lived off the land who made me shuck an oyster. I necked it and thought, “I’m over the fear, but I don’t want to try one again.” It didn’t do anything for me. It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I didn’t suddenly feel rampant. Also, I don’t want to taste the ruddy sea when I’m eating – call me old-fashioned!
During the making of Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains, did you have an absolute favourite dish? Yes, on the train in Malaysia I had this curry that was divine. It was like ideal comfort food. I said, “I have to have another portion”. I just loved it – it was like the perfect Friday night takeaway. I’m sure I should be saying my favourite food on the trip was something posh like lobster or foie grass or caviar. But I hate to say it, there was something about that curry that I just couldn’t get enough of.
Did you do a lot of research before visiting these places? No. I chose not to know anything beforehand. I wanted my questions and responses to be spontaneous. So I hope when you’re watching it, you’re learning something for the first time through my eyes in a real way.
Were there any drawbacks about making this series? No. The only negative was that the food was too good! I was eating five meals a day and put on 14 pounds – which I am now desperately trying to lose!
Finally, what did you learn from making this series? I learned so much about different cuisines from different experts. That inspires you and gives you great new ideas for recipes. I also loved the enthusiasm of the passengers and the staff on the trains. That was wonderful and truly infectious. I never tired of feeding off that. I don’t know if I would have found that on many other journeys. I was in my element on this trip. I had the best time!
For more information about Jonathan Phang Gourmet Trains Episodes on DSTV’s Travel channel (179) Click Here!