"Epicures all Aboard"
"A Native Southerner Is the First of "Great American Chefs on the Rails"
Photography by Sylvia Martin
Text by Trinket Shaw
A second phone call to the Station confirms earlier information. Yes, the voice at the other end of the line regretfully reports, the train will be at least thirty minutes late. It's no problem for us though. Outside the Regis Hotel in San Francisco's theater district our limousines stands packed and waiting, ready at a moment's notice to zip us across the bay to the Oakland railway depot. Inside the hotel restaurant, we're drinking cappuccino and mocha latte while chef Regina Charboneau passes out the beignets that she had meant to serve after we bearded the train. Despite the vagaries of Amtrak timetables, we're a good-natured bunch. For we have not nothing more pressing to anticipate than a leisurely shuttle down to Santa Barbara and back, a weekend jaunt replete with meal after meal adapted from the southern-influenced menus of Regina's restaurant at the Regis.
This affable group of eight passengers, some of Regina's most ardent customers, is on hand to inaugurate an Epicurean series called "Great American Chefs on the Rails." The program, which was conceived and orchestrated by David Johnson of EpicEvent Productions in San Francisco, features spring and fall tours designed to evoke the experience of grand luxe train travel during earlier decades of this century.
For this first trip. the limousine drivers deposit me and my companions at the steps of the restored 1926 private railcar Houston, attached caboose-like to the regular Amtrak express just for the weekend. The Houston, one of a fleet of vintage coaches owned by entrepreneur Christopher Kyte, was originally assigned to the superintendent of Southern Pacific's Houston division but was later used to convey then-congressman Lyndon Johnson between Texas and Washington, DC
Entering the windowed observation lounge at the rear of the coach, we've hardly had time to admire the plush upholstery fabrics, burnished brass fittings, and fresh flower arrangements, when a white-jacketed steward materializes offering flutes of champagne all around. He recreates down a narrow corridor of gleaming mahogany paneling, past staterooms and dining room and into the kitchen.
Earlier, Regina's assistant cook had been the first to entrain, clattering aboard with a large cardboard box of the chef's favorite utensils. Now, a peek into the vest-pocket galley reveals that same young woman scrubbing down stainless steel surfaces that already appear spotless; she knows how fastidious Regina is about her work space, whatever its size. And by the end of the weekend, the other guests and I will have been repeatedly amazed at what the chef and her assistant are able to turn out with two burners and one oven.
Regina Charboneau's success as a San Francisco restaurateur has been ensured by her authentically southern style of cooking. Growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, Regina was discouraged from entering the field by her father, also a chef and restaurateur. "He told me that the work was too hard, that if I wanted to wear the whites, I should go into nursing," she tells me, now able to joke about it. She wasn't to be dissuaded, though. After college, she earned enough money cooking in an Alaska bush camp to send herself to Paris to study at La Varenne; however, she considers the months she spent touring the restaurants of Europe "the best education a chef could get." Still, she draws heavily from her native South for her recipes.
Pan-seared quail turns up on today's brunch, actually late lunch, menu. In just the same way that we passengers have relaxed into the soothing cadence of the rails, Regina's meal schedules settle in at their own unhurried pace. When brunch is finally served around three o'clock, the sun shines laterally in through the dining room windows on our right, casting full shadows of the railcars, with no foreshortening, on the brown terrain on our left. But again, we take it all in stride, and when Regina emerges from the galley, we erupt into spontaneous applause for her peppery quail, apple-cured bacon, and pastry-like biscuits. the giddy champagne toasts that follower as we pull into Santa Barbara are only a few of the many proposed to her during the trip.
Although the Houston accommodates a limited number of overnight guests, we are more capriciously bedded down for the evening in the garden cottages of the 1871 Uphill Hotel. Next day, after a morning of sailing, we reboard the train. With the Pacific now on our left, we reconvene over yet another brunch: poached eggs on a hash of new potatoes and andouille sausage, corncakes with creme fraiche and honey-thinned peach preserves, and Regina's biscuits, the same flaky confection that has driven nearly two dozen readers of Gourmet to write begging for her recipe.
Outside Santa Barbara, the train turns inland again, but the tan countryside, isled with fields of pink gladiolus of fern asparagus, heaves and swells with a wavelike constancy. Nodding over our books and Sunday papers as the afternoon slips away, my comrades and I find it difficult to rouse ourselves for the last meal, a candlelit black-tie dinner. Starting with tiny crabcakes on oyster shells as appetizers, we reel through a succession of rich courses: corn and wild rice chowder, crayfish boudin with bitter greens, chicken glazed with cane sugar, and pear tarts with persimmon coulis. This time, the biscuits are laced with cheddar.
Regina, whose next excursion with "Great American Chefs on the Rails" is scheduled for June 7-9, had confided at the beginning of the trip that guests might be biscuited-out by the time we got back to the city. Not me. Like the characters out of an Anne Tyler novel, I feel positively homesick for Regina's buttery masterpiece, knowing that every biscuit I ever eat will be measured against hers and come up lacking.