Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains
Premieres Tuesday, 11 February 2014 at 9pm
Say the words 'Orient' or 'Express' and evocative images of opulent carriages, stylish passengers and thrilling destinations come to mind ...along with the excitement and romance of train travel.
In this exciting new series inspired by the allure of old world glamour, Jonathan Phang, a self-confessed bon viveur with a passion for gastronomy goes on a gourmet journey crossing continents, aboard some of the world's most elegant trains.
Along the way he stops off in extraordinary culinary destinations, exploring the towns and cities that have been the highlights of these spectacular journeys for many years, testing the old adage... is it better to travel than to arrive?
On board the trains, Jonathan gets to know the staff and fellow passengers and helps out with the chefs, including Christian Bodiguel and Yannis Martineau, who between them have worked on the trains for over 50 years.
In the cities he stops off in, Jonathan explores what's new on the food scene, meets people who are pioneering in their culinary field and tries the unexpected and cutting edge.
Humour is a big part of Jonathan's adventures and he really throws himself into the challenges and scenarios he encounters.
Jonathan Phang biography and Q&A
Jonathan spent over 20 years masterminding the careers of the world's top models in London, Miami and New York, before opening his own beauty agency.
He has featured as a judge on two modelling related TV shows, Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model, and Britain's Missing Top Model, and hosted a show called Naked on BBC3 in which he attempted to boost the self esteem of the everyday woman.
He has recently released his debut cookbook, The Pepperpot Club, and has starred in the Food Network's brand new series Jonathan Phang's Caribbean Cookbook, which sees Jonathan travel between the Caribbean islands whilst meeting local chefs and cooking up his favourite Caribbean influenced dishes. Jonathan has also been a featured chef on Channel 4's new show 'What's Cooking?'
Q: What was the appeal of making Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains?
A: Travelling on the most iconic luxury trains and eating my way around the world was the appeal! It was something I never thought I would do, but I'm very glad I have now done it!
Q: Can you explain what is so wonderful about travelling by train?
A: Trains were never my fantasy, but now I completely understand why people would spend their lives saving up to travel the world on trains. There is something rather special about going by train.
Q: Tell us more.
A: For instance, when you travel on the Orient Express, it's great. You feel like you're stepping back in time. The tradition and the history make it something truly remarkable. It could easily not be there anymore, but the people who work on that train love it and have kept it going. They are as excited as the passengers about the journey. You have one staff member all to 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.
Q: Let's talk about the places you visited, beginning with Venice.
A: Venice is almost peculiar, it so incredibly beautiful. It has an extraordinary way of life because the inhabitants have to deal with water instead of streets. It's a really unique place. I met this wonderful lady living in the Palazzo who gave us a peek into the lives of people living on the Grand Canal. It was like stepping back in time. Every item in her house was an antique of museum standard. It was an example of how the other half live.
Q: Who else did you meet in Venice?
A: We met this incredible man who runs a seafood restaurant. He goes 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 2.30am now!" That night set the tone for the series. It was a whirlwind of feeling constantly over full, but it was impossible to resist!
Q: Where did you go next?
A: We got on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, 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!
Q: What else did you get up to on that train?
A: There was a piano bar, and I love a piano bar. I was desperate to lie on top of it and sing, "Makin' Whoopee!" I ended up crooning along to a whole load of show tunes like "Autumn Leaves" from an era that really suited the train.
Q: Where did you end up?
A: 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.
Q: Where to next?
A: 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 growing his own vegetables and taught himself to cook. He is a real rustic food enthusiast.
Q: So is Romanian cuisine starting from scratch?
A: 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!
Q: What was your next destination?
A: 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.
Q: Where did you alight next?
A: 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!
Q: What was your next port of call?
A: 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!
Q: You then travelled to the Far East, didn't you?
A: 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?!
Q: What was your next stop?
A: 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!
Q: What was the highlight of that leg of the tour for you?
A: 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.
Q: Where did you head for next?
A: 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!
Q: And then it was back to the UK, wasn't it?
A: Yes. We went on the British Pullman and the Northern Belle. We travelled 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 anabsolute horse!
Q: Did you then travel on to Kent?
A: 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!
Q: During the making of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, did you have an absolute favourite dish?
A: 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.
Q: Did you do a lot of research before visiting these places?
A: 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.
Q: Were there any drawbacks about making this series?
A: 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!
Q: Finally, what did you learn from making this series?
A: 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!
Venice to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Jonathan Phang boards this historic train at Venice train station and travels via Innsbruck to Paris and then on to London. In Venice he explores the Rialto food market and cooks scampi, visits the palazzo Lezze on the Grand Canal and finds out how Venetians live and entertain in these palatial houses. In Paris, Jonathan is invited to the laboratory of chocolate master Patrick Roger where truffle making doesn't go quite to plan and he does retro dining at the art nouveau restaurant, La Fermette Marbeuf.
Bucharest to Istanbul on The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Jonathan Phang retraces Queen of crime Agatha Christie's footsteps in a journey that inspired her most famous novel - Murder On The Orient Express. This sees him travelling from Bucharest to Istanbul through the Carpathian Mountains to the former royal resort of Sinaia - where he cooks a wild venison dinner in a hunting lodge. In Bucharest Jonathan explores the emerging food scene and cooks with Mircea Dinescu, a poet and political revolutionary turned restaurateur. In Istanbul Jonathan explores both the traditional and more cutting edge food scene, meeting the historic spice market's only female shop owner.
England on the Northern Belle and The British Pullman
Jonathan Phang takes the British Pullman to Whitstable in Kent where he faces his phobia for oysters, before going foraging on the beach with 'fine food forager' Lucia Jackson and cooking a gourmet dinner with his finds. His Northern Belle journey takes him to Rutland where he has an early morning start making artisan bread, then he embarks on a bread and butter pudding cook--off with Mark Beastall the chef of a Michelin starred country house hotel. Back in London he is invited to the train depot to see how the trains are restored, before cooking lunch with the chef of Aqua, 31 storeys up, in the newly built Shard.
Singapore to Penang on The Eastern and Oriental Express
In Singapore Jonathan Phang meets executive chef Christopher Christie who is in charge of 30 restaurants at the 8billion dollar 'wonder of the world' that is the Marina Bay Sands. He takes on a chili crab challenge and cooks with young British chef Ryan Clift who is making a name for himself with his molecular approach to gourmet cuisine at the award--winning Tippling Club. He then boards the Eastern and Oriental train from the world famous Raffles Hotel, and travels through the night to Penang in Malaysia. On board he enjoys a dinner so much he goes back for seconds.
Penang to Bangkok on The Eastern and Oriental Express
In George Town the historic capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, Jonathan Phang explores a Sunday morning market and ends up buying a 100 year--old egg that he eats back on the train. The next stop is the infamous bridge over the River Kwai where Jonathan pays his respects at the war graves. On to Bangkok with its markets, temples and food on every street corner, where Jonathan gets the ultimate lesson in making Thai green curry. He then explores Chinatown and puts two restaurants, which are old rivals, to the test to see which one makes the best Tom Yum soup.
Budapest to Vienna on The Venice Simplon Orient-Express
Jonathan Phang's journey starts in Budapest, where he tackles an ancient dish inspired by blood sucking leeches at the influential Bock Bizstro. Since Budapest is all about spas, Jonathan strips off to enjoy these healing waters. The Venice Simplon Orient--Express takes him to Vienna, where he takes part in a cook--off at Figlmuller, the city's most famous schnitzel dynasty restaurant and is let in on the secrets of a legendary Viennese lobster dish at the Opera House restaurant Vestibuel. He also finds out how a city vineyard in the center of Vienna is producing award--winning wine.
Mortimer Harvey manages all marketing and public relations for Travel Channel in South Africa.
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