Editor’s note – Monthly ticket is a new series from CNN Travel that highlights some of the most exciting topics in the world of travel. In May, we ride the rails, exploring the world’s greatest train journeys. Whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or insider knowledge, the Monthly Pass will get you there.
(CNN) – Taiwan’s first gourmet train has just hit the rails and this stunning creation is quickly gaining fans not only for its food but also for its looks.
The moving kitchen opened on the platform of Taipei Nangan Railway Station in March 2022 – a surreal moment for Johnny Chiu, founder of Taipei-based JC Architecture.
Looking at the chic orange and black train, it’s hard to believe that when it first debuted in 2019, local media called its original appearance an “aesthetic disaster.”
Chiu redesigned the entire train, including the new gourmet dining cars, which is the main reason why this former “disaster” is now affectionately referred to as “the most beautiful train in Taiwan.”
The letter that started it all
“In Taiwan, train travel has always been a big part of our lives,” Chiu tells CNN Travel.
“From enlisting in the military (military service is compulsory for men in Taiwan) to returning home for the Lunar New Year celebration, to meeting our girlfriends or grandmothers, the train ride remains in everyone’s memory.”
“The kitchen bar looked like a hospital, with white plastic countertops and trash cans that you would find on the streets. And with flashy flowers painted on the wall, it really was tasteless. Everyone went crazy. on every media site and every social media account,” Chiu recalls.
The mobile kitchen designed by Johnny Chiu debuted in March 2022.
Lee Kuo-Ming JC Architecture
Saddened by the situation, Chiu wrote an open letter suggesting that everyone see this as an opportunity to modernize the Taiwanese railway and expressed the hope that someone would pass on his message to TRA.
In response to the criticism, TRA brought in a group of creatives to come up with a more pleasing solution. One of them saw Chiu’s open letter and reached for it.
“I got an email response: “Johnny, great. We are glad you received such a positive response. I give you guys two weeks and please submit your ideas to us,” recalls Chiu.
After two weeks of sleepless nights and whiskey-filled brainstorming sessions, Chiu and his team presented the transformation plan to TRA. Shortly thereafter, they were awarded the project.
Building a 50+ year old train
In 2019, architect Johnny Chiu and his team were commissioned to transform this 50-year-old train.
Lee Kuo-Ming JC Architecture
But the real test was just beginning.
The team had just seven months to rebuild the refurbished orange train. Once known as the Chu-Kuang Express, this was an old diesel locomotive from the 1970s.
“We didn’t know it was an old train. We had to gut everything inside and repaint,” says Chiu.
They faced many challenges, including energy and structural issues.
They needed to hide complex electrical wires. Meanwhile, the safety standards were higher than for their normal interior designs, as train materials must be fire-resistant and durable.
Apart from the equipment, it was also difficult to convince the 132-year-old government organization to join these new design ideas.
“Taiwan Railway is not about design, but about safety, punctuality and precision. But fortunately, the TRA director and his deputy were able to make difficult decisions and enthusiastically push the whole team to work,” says Chiu.
The new design was developed in seven months and was again presented to the public at the end of 2019. The historic orange remains the same, but is enhanced with black for a luxurious look.
The team reproduced the original retro Japanese-style font on the car’s livery.
The interior draws inspiration from Taiwan’s natural environment, with wood textures and black stones that mimic the mountains and rock formations along the coast of Taiwan where the train will travel.
“We even thought about how to get a ticket. Like in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, you open the envelope to find the golden ticket and you’re excited about the trip,” says Chiu.
Future 2.0: Taiwan’s first gourmet train
The Future’s livery was inspired by the orange color of the original train.
Lee Kuo-Ming JC Architecture
With a big win, TRA set about building the Future 2.0 gourmet train.
Victor Cheng is the senior director of train booking company Lion Travel.
“Gourmet trains were a familiar concept in Japan and Europe, but not in Taiwan,” he told CNN Travel. “But the Taiwanese love trains and food, so it was a logical and attractive move to bring them together.”
As The Future’s sole travel operator and the largest travel agency in Taiwan, Lion Travel spent over a year researching JC Architecture and TRA’s experience before it was unveiled in March.
“To become the first five-star gourmet train in Taiwan, we had to overcome several hurdles—lack of cooking water and electricity being the first two major challenges,” says Cheng.
Plenty of water is needed for drinking, cleaning and cooking. But storage space on board is limited.
To solve the problem, fresh water and dishes are loaded into the train between meals at stops. The staff also works closely with catering provider Silks Hotel Group, which operates luxury hotels and restaurants in Taiwan, to organize the equipment needed on board.
“The second challenge is to offer gourmet dining on a moving train. Our waiters practiced for a long time to get a firm footing, serving tables on a staggering train. The serving time of each dish must also be accurate.” Cheng says.
The delivery of each meal matches the view passengers will see.
For example, the first course of one of the meals on a two-day trip is abalone. It is given when the train arrives at Turtle Island, famous for its shellfish.
The second course is a seafood salad on a blue plate, combined with sea views of the eastern coast.
The dishes then continue to showcase local delicacies such as hot spring vegetables (vegetables grown with local hot spring water), duck, and sweet purple potatoes as they pass through different directions.
“And because it’s a tourist train, we don’t have a schedule to run from one station to another. We can slow down the train on some of the most scenic routes. The train stopped while the passengers dined at the most beautiful places. the section of the route is where the train is closest to the sea in Hualien,” says Cheng.
The Moving Kitchen is the first gourmet train in Taiwan.
Cheng says every party involved in the project has done their best to keep the Moving Kitchen running smoothly.
“At the station where we stopped our train, there were dense thickets that blocked part of the view of the sea. Knowing this, TRA sent someone to pull the weeds and cut the trees before the trip,” says Cheng.
Traveling by train is more than just a culinary experience. This is combined with detailed sightseeing tours such as visiting a local rice farm and a fishing port to get an idea of what kind of food they will be eating on the train.
“So it’s not just good food on a moving train. Mobile Kitchen combines food, scenery and sightseeing as an all-round journey,” Cheng adds.
Unlike the first version of The Future, Moving Kitchen’s cars took about a year to repair, allowing more time for customization.
There are two new restaurant cars with 54 seats, as well as a new bar and a new kitchen. The dining rooms combine high bar counters, sofa-booths, as well as tables for two to four people.
“We slightly increased the amount of materials. We bring marble from Hualien County and rattan made by aboriginal tribes in southern Taiwan,” says Chiu.
“I am also from the south of Taiwan. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s rattan chair when I was a child, when she spoiled me with her cooking.”
The chairs are made of rattan from the south of Taiwan.
This inspired Chiu to design a special rattan chair for the moving kitchen. Chairs can be anchored to the floor for safety, but they are made to be lightweight.
The armrest has a 45-degree angle, allowing passengers to easily squeeze into their seats, but “still has the armrest chair that exists in a really fine dining restaurant,” which JC Architecture has a lot of experience in designing.
Spotlights have been designed to make food look delicious and Instagram-friendly. Next to the table is a stand for a telephone and a menu. The sculptural wall lamp allows occupants to manipulate the shape of the thin foil lampshade.
Sold out until September
Lion Travel’s Cheng told CNN Travel that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The gourmet train started on March 30, and tickets for the mobile kitchen were sold out until September.
“On the first trip, we had an orange and black dress code to match the colors of the train. We see so many people dressing up for the occasion and they couldn’t stop taking pictures once they got on the train. We were all so touched,” says Cheng.
Moving Kitchen currently offers one or two day itineraries. During the latter, guests leave the train and spend one night at a nearby hotel. There are six tours every month.
Six more railroad tours of the Future – without the Mobile Kitchen – are also available each month. They are seasonally themed and range from one to four days. The train “Future” consists of four business class cars with 33 seats in each.
“I am very proud of this train. This is because I think it is unique to Taiwan. I think it’s successful because the train gives confidence to this 132 year old company. And there is a saying that if TRA could do it, other public sector representatives can too,” says Chiu.
“I also think there is a lot more history and culture that we could dig up and express in a new storyline. So I am very happy that this letter alone has changed the public sector.”