The juxtaposition of Prague’s Gothic fortresses with the concrete behemoths of socialist realism tell the story of a culture that has served multiple masters over the centuries—a history of dispossession that, in a sense, continues into today as an unrelenting surge of tourism. But despite the fact that city space and government funds often cater to the needs of visitors, Prague’s sub-cultural practitioners have found innovative ways of keeping the homegrown artistic pulse alive. There’s a long history here of both resistance and producing works of genius in the face of cold adversity. This creative current still runs through the city’s art and music scenes today. This is the first in a series of monologues, you can read the subsequent installments here.
05:45 am: A Moveable Feast—Breakfast on the train with Josef Kaltenecker, dining car head cook, Budapest – Hamburg
My name is Josef Kaltenecker, and for the last forty-five years now I’ve worked for the Hungarian railway’s catering company MÁV Utasellátó. I was a chef in various train stations in Hungary, but for the last twenty-seven years I’ve been working in dining car kitchens. At the moment, I’m the dining car chef on the route from Hamburg to Budapest, one of the main connections of West and East. Every time the train stops in Praha hlavní nádraží—Prague’s main station—I know that exactly half of the distance is behind us. My shift lasts fourteen and a half hours, during which I prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything on the menu I cook with my own hands in the small and extremely hot steel kitchen.
In the morning, one hour before departure, I prepare all the dishes that have to be ready during the lunchtime rush. I mix the dough for the egg noodles—Spätzle—and whenever an order comes in, all I have to do is rub the dough a bit and then place it into the boiling water with a noodle grater that’s served this kitchen for decades now. Plate for plate, I prepare everything individually. The same goes for the pancakes, the menu’s various omelets, the rice, the goulash, the pork chops, the soups, the coleslaw and the dumplings. Everything is done fresh and on the spot. If you’re well organized it’s not a big deal to offer this palette of food in a train kitchen—even if it’s more difficult to cook when the train is traveling at one hundred forty kilometers per hour with more than occasional bouts of turbulence. I’ve actually had to learn different ways of contorting my body to wedge between the cupboards and the workspace. Especially when chopping parsley or vegetables or when handling pots with boiling water you have to be sure that your body is fixed and immobile in the kitchen. You don’t learn such things in cooking school, but I consider it a tradition worth documenting. I’m not surprised how many guests always tell me that they appreciate our efforts to serve freshly cooked food. Of course, one of the reasons why they can tell me how much they appreciate their food is the fact that they can look into the kitchen. That’s a huge difference to, say, cooking in the restaurant in Budapest’s Nyugati Pályaudvar station, or “Budapest West” for short. There I would be stuck in the kitchen all night and wouldn’t see the face of a single guest.
As a dining car chef I’ve also learned that traveling by train can be a hypnotic experience. The repetitious rhythms of the train can lull you into daydreams. I also love the ever-changing sounds of the tracks. But the dining car is what I love the most. I would even call it an old European tradition. With my colleagues, I have professionally traveled fourteen countries and dozens of cities—Paris, Venice, Basel, Zurich, Hamburg, 87Berlin, Dortmund, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Salonika, Istanbul, Budapest . . . you name it. It’s a great gift to be allowed to travel to Greece and Turkey just because you serve or cook in a dining car. Of course, it’s a huge difference if you’re traveling to a country for holidays or if you get a day off in Istanbul after a long and exhausting train ride. For me, a day off in a foreign city always feels like the greatest reward.
I know many people for whom traveling with the train is like a philosophy. Especially within Europe where the distances are short, train travel can be a kind of calming experience. For instance, taking a train from Vienna or Munich or Berlin to Prague seems to be the only sensible thing to do. I wouldn’t even think to consider taking a plane. It’s all about pace and how you experience distances. If you leave the train and enter Prague’s main station, you are in the heart of the city. If you arrive with a plane however, you’ll find yourself at an airport some fifty kilometers outside the city.
I don’t understand why they don’t cook the food anymore in old-fashioned dining car kitchens nowadays. In large parts of Europe, you will only get precooked, standardized convenience food, warmed up in a microwave without any love. Honestly, I could cry when I think of this. It’s such a different, inhuman concept, and, regrettably, I fear that this old tradition of serving freshly cooked food on the tracks will one day even disappear along the eastern European routes. In Hungary, if you’re lucky, you can even find old dining cars where the chefs still cook with gas stoves. Sometimes it even happens that there’s a power failure—a total blackout. Usually when this happens, you can smoke a cigarette in the kitchen and wait until the electricity is back. But with the old trains it’s different: you might be forced to light a candle to see, but you can still cook on the gas stove.
Another important difference to cooking in a restaurant is that you have to not only beware of how the train is moving, but also how you’re stocked for supplies.You can’t simply send out someone to get you a pack of salt if there’s none left. You have to anticipate everything, because the train’s going to keep moving. That’s why I’m permanently jotting down notes. The last thing I always do before the train approaches its final destination in Budapest Keleti, Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Hamburg Altona is pick up the phone and place the order for the next day. And then, when I’ve shut down everything, I walk out into the night to the hotel where I stay with the crew. Except in Budapest of course, where I will drive home in my car and sleep in my own bed. I imagine that this lifestyle wouldn’t suit everybody.
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 31 (Fall 2012)
Photo: Luci Lux