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My childhood buddy Seymour, now a young London professional, returns to our flat after a grueling 14-hour day "balls deep in spreadsheets" inside his city office with no windows. "I need a holiday. Let's bugger off somewhere." Despite enduring 20 years of close friendship, Seymour and I had not been away together since 1996, when our parents, full of optimism, decided a trip to the British seaside was a good idea. They were wrong. This plan drastically backfired when torrential rain forced us to seek shelter in the car while Seymour and I sang through the entirety of the Soccer Chants CD. Thrice. Now free from the shackles of village gossip ("the hairdresser saw the two of you skipping school and drinking beer at the local tennis club") we plotted out first adventure in 16 years. We would walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. "I can do anytime but September," I told him.
"Sorry mate, we're going in September!" Seymour announced following a meeting with the girls joining us. "The sly bugger" I thought! He's engineered himself a holiday with a group of beautiful women while I sit at home working. This is it I thought: revenge for the time I shaved off his eyebrow... or that time I spiked his Coke with Bacardi at age 16... or when I hid sausages in his briefcase moments before an important meeting with the chief whips at work. Seymour went, he conquered, and finally returned to boast of the experience. So almost a year later, now on my own adventure, I had unfinished business to attend. After a week cooking in Lima I was going to Machu Picchu...
Ever competitive with Seymour, I was determined to out-class his previous year's frolics and reach to the Inca citadel in style. And what better way than riding the Hiram Bingham Orient Express, widely acclaimed as one of the world's most stunning train journeys? Having spent the past four months living in hostels, I arrived at Poroy station in sheer awe of the luxuriousness of the 1920s train with polished wood, brass, crystal glass, and arm chairs more comfortable than the beds I had recently slept in. No sooner than I had finished my first glass of fizz, came a reminder of why I was really here ... "Chef, the kitchen is ready for you!"
Somehow, lost in translation, the staff believed a famous U.K. chef was coming to cook with them, and on entering the kitchen a wall of snap-happy smartphones greeted my arrival. Despite this, there was little time for introductions, with more than 80 diners on the train we got to work on plating up with industrial efficiency. At one stage, the kitchen approached Benny Hill madness, with the four of us running around a tiny kitchen all while I delicately garnished the first course with borage flowers, trying to keep my balance on the moving train.
The menu on the Hiram Bingham, pays homage to pacha mama (Mother Nature) by serving food from the Sacred Valley. For example the starter consisted of locally sourced Wayllabamba trout, from the Urubamba or "Sacred River," which the train ran along. This was served with fava beans, Andean mint, and an aircampo emulsion — a type of Andean prickly pear known for its medicinal properties. To follow came a hen "rotolo" with a yellow pepper sauce known as aji de gallina, first created when French chefs traveled to the New World at the start of the 19th century. With the fast pace of service, and engrossed in peeling quail eggs to garnish the main course, I completely forgot that I was missing out on the breathtaking journey. The things we do for our passions, hey. After a manic few hours, and with the last dessert sent out, I was lucky enough to escape to the train's observation deck to take in some of the scenery before the final bus leg of the journey to Machu Picchu.
As the bus reached the Inca city, my excitement started to build, until finally I arrived. Six months ago I was sitting at my desk job in a concrete monstrosity. Today, 19 jobs later, I cooked my way to a world wonder — a real reminder of what you can achieve when you dare to dream. Despite my euphoria, something was not quite right. In moments like this, surrounded by such beauty, it's amazing how much you can miss those near and dear to you (even if one of those people happens to be a certain eyebrow shaved young professional belting out soccer chants at the top of his voice).
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