In his new show, Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains (starts 7pm, Monday 17 on Travel Channel), the former Caribbean Cookbook presenter gets to experience the famous Orient Express, iconic British Pullman and Northern Bell, plus the classic Eastern & Oriental. He travels from Venice to London, Bucharest to Istanbul, and Singapore to Penang, among other routes, while tucking in to some top nosh cooked en route.
“The food is amazing. It’s almost too much,” says Phang, “by the end of it I had put on a stone. I was longing for a boiled egg and soldiers.”
Phang’s epic rail journey took around four months; and he explains that it was like stepping back in time. “You don’t have Wi-Fi, you don’t have television, so you’ve really got to adopt a different pace of life.” Phang is no stranger to the finer things in life. During his successful fashion career he’s been surrounded by glamorous things, and represented everyone from Liv Tyler to Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell.
Would luxury trains travel be enough to dazzle Phang? “In this day and age, all we do is look at horrible trains, and Tube trains,” says Phang, who wasn’t sure what to expect before the series. “But the Orient Express was just so elegant and gracious, I just couldn’t wait to get inside it. It was always exciting when I stepped on any of the trains,” he says, impressed by the pomp and glory of the experience. “The red carpets come out at the station and I was ushered into my cabin where I met my personal steward. Then I was given a glass of champagne and had a look around my cabin and its wonderful design features… the attention to detail and the fact that they’re so cleverly designed, you never feel claustrophobic at all.”
For Phang, it was the dining carriages that really stood out. “They are more spacious than your average restaurant in London,” he claims. “There are big comfortable arm chairs and plenty of space, there’s also wonderful chinaware, silver and crystal – you don’t get that anywhere, really.”
On board the trains in the show, Jonathan gets to know the staff, passengers and chefs, including esteemed chefs Christian Bodiguel and Yannis Martineau – who cook a variety of world-class gastronomic creations. Phang compares train food to plane food. “In first class [on a plane] you still feel that someone’s taken a bit of polythene off a dish that’s been hanging around for a while, you still feel that it’s mass catered,” he says. “[On these trains] the chef comes out and says ‘do you like it? Because if you don’t, I can do you this…’ not that I had complaints about anything.”
Waking up in a new city is equally as exciting, says Phang. “The most glamorous part of the trip was Venice overnight to Paris, it was classic. You feel like a movie star going to those destinations.” Also among his favourite routes was Bucharest to Istanbul. “The journey has a real communist feel, then when you end up in Istanbul your mind goes all over the place. Istanbul really is an exciting city and not one I’ve visited before. It was very compelling with its east meets west and old and new. It’s very harmonious as well.”
Phang is a convert, and is keen to continue riding luxury trains; “You can’t compare it to anything else,” he says. It’s completely unique and comfortable way to travel.”
Watch Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains on Travel Channel