Get to Know Our Chefs: Donald Young

Get to Know Our Chefs: Donald Young

March 5, 2018
Tasting & Learning

The Napa Valley Wine Train is more than a travel experience, it’s a restaurant on wheels! Every day our culinary team delights our guests with delicious meals perfectly paired to Napa’s beautiful views, bountiful harvest, and of course, outstanding wines! Donald Young is the Executive Chef aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train and we sat down with him to talk about food, wine, and cooking on a train.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I realized I had a passion for cooking at a very young age while helping my Grandpa make homemade chicken pot pie in the suburbs of Boston.

Q: Were there any chefs that inspired you along the way?
I started with an English guy, David Woodward, a chef from Liverpool who I worked with in Boston, just out of culinary school. In 1985, I went with him to Florida to help him open the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach and he was a great inspiration.

I met Robbin Haas and Chef Adam Votaw in the late 80s and worked with them for a few years. Those were my role models. David was very, very classical and Robbin was cutting edge, keeping up with what was happening in South Florida at that time.

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Q: How long have you been with the Napa Valley Wine Train?
I’ll have lived in the Napa Valley [and have been working with the Wine Train] for two years at the end of this month. I was working in the Florida Keys for about six months and then this came up. I’d been to Napa about three years ago and met Noble House and that’s when I realized, “Oh wow, I really like this place.” You know, it’s beautiful!

Q: What’s your cooking philosophy?
The industry has changed over the years but I always go back to the basics: utilize great product and pay strict attention to the fine details.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing about cooking on a moving train?
Being able to create fun and interesting items that will work effectively in a constantly moving environment. You have to realize too, that the kitchens on some of these smaller trains are like the size of a postage stamp! We do have an 8,000-square-foot commissary so we’ll get everything set...but everything is finished and cooked and fired onboard in this little area.

Q: What excites you the most about California ingredients?
The wide array of product available from superior local produce, fish, and meats. I’m just now getting all the menus together for the upcoming spring and summer season—we change our menus seasonally. I do use as much local product as I can. We’ve got our local goat cheese guy, Skyhill Farms, Golden Bear Ranch tomatoes when they’re in. Sometimes farmers come by the back door with beans, fresh produce, and things like that and I’ll take those. We’re also a Seafood Watch Partner as far as using ecologically safe and sustainable seafood.

Q: Do you have a favorite wine train menu item?

There’s one, our Slow Braised Short Rib—it’s one of our best sellers. We do it old school: searing off the meat, [followed by] a five-hour braise in a low oven. The other really good one is the Citrus Marinated Pork Belly with a cauliflower puree, smoky bacon, and pickled red onion and grain mustard reduction.

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Q: What about a favorite Napa Valley wine?
There are so many available here and I have yet to find one that does not meet every price point and occasion.

Q: What can guests expect from a dining experience aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train?
To be able to enjoy quality cuisine and fine wines in a completely restored 100-year-old rail car, while viewing the beautiful Napa Valley.

The smaller trains, that’s where it’s at. We do these private events and wine dinners—we call them Meet the Maker dinners—with winemakers in the valley that are limited to 36 people. The winemakers send me samples and tasting notes of what they’d like to feature and we build a menu around that. Then they come on board and they showcase their wines with each course. That’s where it’s really fun.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about working with the Napa Valley Wine Train?
The constant challenge of being able to provide a top-notch dining experience for our guests in a moving environment. It’s just been so great. Plus, we’re in the process of building a 140-room boutique hotel that will tie into the train here, which is one of the things that first got me interested. Besides, I’d never worked on a train!

Q: There are three kitchens aboard the Wine Train; that must keep you busy! How do you keep all three running smoothly and producing such high-quality food?

It’s really four [kitchens], soon to be five! When I got here, it was one fine dining dome car and the main train car. Then, almost two years ago, we launched the Quattro Vino Tours, which [is a dining car that] has 36 seats. Then, last July, we launched car 1013, and coming up in April we’ll have another car added on.

It’s all in the planning, constant daily organization, checklists and attention to the small details. Once the train leaves the Station it’s very hard to regroup if an item is forgotten! That’s the trick: to be able to create things that are train-friendly. And still the guests will go, “Hey, wow, that’s pretty delicious.”

Take yourself on a culinary journey through Napa. Book a dining tour today!