BRIDGEPORT — When the fully restored Pullman rail cars parked in a South Loop rail yard begin chugging to New Orleans next month, passengers will be rolling to and from the Big Easy in style.
They’ll sip cocktails, hobnob in social lounges and dine on gourmet meals before retiring to their sleeping quarters.
A key participant of the first-class experience will be Dan Traynor.
Traynor, 29, of Bridgeport, has been working as executive chef for Pullman Sleeping Car Co. for about a year, training a service crew and planning meals and menus for the company, which will operate luxury attachments to cars on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans line.
He's been studying the culinary history of dining on American railways and scouring cookbooks published by the train lines featuring recipes from their acclaimed onboard restaurants.
“The earliest fine-dining establishments in America were these rail cars," he said. "They were the four- and five-star restaurants of their time."
Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, parent company of the Pullman project, said the 19-hour journey to New Orleans — which carries price tags ranging from $500 to $2,850 per passenger — is very much about service.
"The cars are the stage. The people who work on the cars are the actors who bring it to life," he said.
"One of the first things we said was that we need an executive chef who can take the time to figure out the really iconic railroad dining-car food service of the 1920s through the 1950s," he continued, "and update it with modern ingredients and spices and do what we wanted to do in the service to New Orleans."
It's a tall order.
Each of the train's overnight runs will bring its own set of meal-planning challenges. Most of the food will be prepared in the company's commissary, located a short drive from Union Station, though some dishes will be finished in the rail car's tiny kitchens.
Despite the challenges, the concept is old hat for Traynor.
Prior to stints at Prasino, two sustainable food-focused restaurants, he worked his way up to head chef for a rail line operated by Holland America in Alaska, he said.
Now, he's charged with creating a menu that updates throwback elegance for modern palates.
Traynor said guests can expect preparations that pay homage to the hefty histories of the line’s destination cities, with meats and seafood — think filet mignon and spicy shrimp cocktails — playing a starring role during dinner service.
Salads will be served with a special “Illinois Central” dressing, a Thousand Island-like accompaniment replicated from that famed rail line's cookbook.
Desserts will be adapted but stay traditional.
“I don’t know many people would order fig pudding for dessert these days,” he said, adding that he’s looking to serve simpler treats, like chocolate cake and baked apples with vanilla ice cream.
Guests will also get to enjoy another local export — specialty roasts from the Bridgeport Coffee Co.
Mike Pilkington, master roaster at the coffee company, said he's excited to be a part of the project.
“It’s a nice Chicago story," he said. "It’s the romance of it, it’s fun.”