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From Railroad to Statehouse: A Chef Comes Home

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Shaun Murphy - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Shaun Murphy

Shaun Murphy is up before sunrise at her house in Plainfield, and in the kitchen at 4:20. The coffee is all but ready for her, set up the night before by her mother. Murphy just has to hit the "on" button, and coffee starts to drip.

Then she arranges her hair in two tight braids that fall to the front and dresses for work in chef's blacks. By 5:20, Murphy is "driving like a granny," as she puts it, to Montpelier, where she's a cook at Capitol Food Court in the Statehouse.

"No breakfast," Murphy says. "That would slow me down."

She will crack many eggs (about 120) and take many steps (roughly 13,000) as part of her daily routine at the Statehouse grill, filling meal orders for legislators and lobbyists who talk turkey over her omelettes.

"This is perfect for me, because I start super-early," Murphy says one afternoon in the cafeteria at the end of her shift. "I didn't want to work late nights. I didn't want to work in a place with a bar. That's not my scene."

Murphy, 53, moved back home to Plainfield a year ago after a life spent on the road — or, more precisely, the railroad. For 22 years, she worked as a private chef for travelers who toured the country in vintage restored railroad cars.

Riding the rails from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, B.C. to Jasper National Park in Alberta; Montréal, Qué, to Montpelier, Murphy prepared and served three meals a day for guests. She rose before dawn to make coffee in her cramped mobile kitchen, then set to work on a breakfast frittata while her diners slept and the train rolled on.

The private railroad car was hitched to an Amtrak passenger train — but not accessible from it. "It's a land cruise," Murphy says. "It's the most amazing way to travel. You sit in the lounge or on the porch out back and watch the track going away. Going away from you."

During her years cooking on chartered train cars, Murphy's home base was LA. She'd go out for weeks at a time, living and working most often in a train car called the Scottish Thistle. Built in 1959 for Canadian business executives, it has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and an observation deck. Murphy folded her bed into a bench when she got up, and her sleeping area became a bar.

"I chose to have an adventure," she says. "I didn't even know what state I was in most of the time."

Murphy earned $275 to $350 a day on the train. Her role was to prepare the meals and clean up, to put roses on guests' pillows and pick up specks of lint, to scope out a grocery store in an unknown city and stock up when the train pulled into a station. Locavore cooking by train meant buying salmon in Seattle and beef in Chicago.

Murphy rationed water for cooking and washing up from a 300-gallon tank. She could whip up a meal when the train was 11 hours late and people were hungry, inventing the "derailment special": phyllo dough pockets stuffed with cheese, veggies and chicken, with tomato sauce on top.

"Deep frying is something you never do on a moving vehicle," Murphy says. "That's a rule. Even boiling water is interesting on a train."

On one occasion, she found herself without salt. So, at a station stop, she stepped off the train and dashed down the track into the Amtrak train pulling her car. There she made her way to the dining car and got packets of salt. At the next stop, Murphy repeated her trip in reverse, rushing down the platform into the private rail car.

"Your life is not your own," Murphy says of those days. "You need a firm sense of urgency and flexibility. I can't even express how intense that work is. I love that kind of pressure. It's about creating systems that work. The quicker and better you do your job, the more time you have to look out the window."

In those still moments, watching the scenery pass by, she thought of her home state. "I'm big on the coasts, having grown up in Vermont," Murphy says. "Green looks like home to me."

Murphy spent much of her downtime reading. She filled half her suitcase with books and read about one a day, leaving finished paperbacks, often mysteries, in train stations for the next traveler.

At the LA station, Murphy met the man she would marry — a switchman for Amtrak. When the marriage ended after seven and a half years, she moved home.

"I'm so glad to be back in Vermont," Murphy says. "I've been trying to get back here for a long while. I had to leave to really appreciate it."

Murphy now lives with her 81-year-old mother, Pat Murphy, in the 200-year-old farmhouse near the base of Spruce Peak where she grew up.

Pat is retired from her job in the library at Goddard College. Murphy's late father, Dennis Murphy, was an ethnomusicologist and composer who taught at Goddard. One of his primary interests was gamelan, the Javanese percussion instrument.

"My parents stuck it out at Goddard," Murphy says. She attended culinary school in New York before embarking on her chef's life.

Murphy started work at the Statehouse cafeteria last December, hired by executive chef Ray Wood. "For all the years I've been a chef, I can honestly just get a vibe by talking to a person," he says. "I get the vibe with Shaun of someone who loves cooking. If you have a passion talking about it, you tend to have a passion doing it."

He appreciates her ability to connect with customers in an "intimate" way, just as she did on the train. Statehouse eaters are regulars — lawmakers and others who work in the capital. "We're kind of like a family in here," Wood says. "You're face-to-face with the person you're cooking for, under the microscope."

Murphy takes orders from people at the grill, working from memory, chitchatting with customers and holding about six orders in her head at a time.

"It's kind of like an Easy Bake oven," Murphy says. "As soon as things come in one end, they go out the other."

At 12:15 on a Friday in early March, the line is long at Murphy's grill station. Two baskets of French fries sizzle, a cheeseburger is ablaze on the grill, and a pile of mushrooms and onions is sautéing for a veggie burger. Murphy is ready for another order.

"Chicken cordon bleu," the customer requests. Murphy puts two slices of ham on the grill to start the meal.

"Grilled hot dogs with fries," the next man orders. "If you grill it so it's a little crispy, that's all right, too."

Rep. Barbara Murphy (I-Franklin) — no relation — is up next, ordering for eight during this Friday lunch rush. It's school vacation week, and she's hosting visitors at the Statehouse.

"My rule for when constituents visit is, I buy them lunch with my per diem," Barbara Murphy says. "It's their tax dollars, not mine."

Her order includes two grilled-cheese sandwiches. "Bread and cheese?" Murphy the cook asks Murphy the politico.

"It's for two little boys," the Fairfax lawmaker replies.

That's enough information for Shaun Murphy: She slaps together a pair of white-bread sandwiches with American cheese.

This is a woman accustomed to meeting the needs of her clientele, whether they're country kids or passengers on the Scottish Thistle returning to the train sloshed after a night in New Orleans. "A midnight snack should be grilled or gooey," Murphy says of the latter scenario. "Stoner food."

Among the private train passengers she accommodated was a celebrity known for his luxurious tastes: Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine. Hef liked baby peas from a silver can, warmed up, Murphy says. He requested seven varieties of potato chips, so she stocked her kitchen with 13 bags to cover "all potato chip eventualities."

"My greatest skill is having no opinion," Murphy says, meaning she accepts diners' desires with neutrality. "I don't have [opinions] with the guests."

Still, having catered to vacationers' dining desires for more than two decades, Murphy has acquired tastes of her own.

"My favorite food is something that I haven't had to make," she says. "I've thought about it, made it, touched it, plated it, washed the dishes. Don't make me eat it, too."


The original print version of this article was headlined "Capitol Line"

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