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Jeff Monk: My life in hospitality

28 May 2009 by
Jeff Monk: My life in hospitality

From a career that saw him as starting as a chef in the merchant navy in 1973, Monk has always included travel in his catering work.

After his time in the navy, where he became their youngest head chef at the age of 19, he swapped the kitchen for front of house so he could join the Orient Express team - mainly because they would only employ French chefs in the kitchen.

To enjoy working in the industry he warns that you have to be a certain type of person.

"You have to be subservient in a way, to be able to serve others and enjoy it. If you don't have that in your psyche, then you'll always find it hard," he says.


I'm a people person, and the nicest part of my job has been meeting so many extraordinary people, especially in the early days on the Orient Express to Venice, when real celebrities travelled on it. We had Francis Ford Coppola, the Kennedy family and Paul Newman, who was a real gentleman and I've never met anyone else quite like him. There was just something about the way he looked; he had that rare quality you see in people just once or twice in a lifetime and his genuine kindness came through in everything about the way he behaved.

I'm a big fan of the Rolling Stones, and another time we had Keith Richards travelling with us. He'd been ordering Champagne through the night, and at 6.30am came out into the main cabin with an acoustic guitar, singing Johnny Be Good. It was quite a performance and made a lot of people very happy.

When I came back from the Orient Express to start off the Northern Belle, it was extremely hard work, but an amazing experience to work on something right from the start and see it become so successful.

It was important to get things like the food offer right, as we found in the North of England people want a different menu. They like more meaty, hearty dishes.


When we did Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin, we had the whole crew on board and, because of a strike, we had to get everyone to leave the train in Innsbruck and go by coach to Venice.

Telling everyone that was the plan wasn't very nice, but people are generally quite understanding. It's just hard sometimes to convey information to guests as quickly as they'd like - information on railways can be notoriously hard to get - and people can get fed up.

We have loads of requests from passengers, but one of the oddest was from an Australian family who wanted a full British Christmas dinner while on board - in August.

The French chefs had never cooked anything like it before. I had to bring loads of ingredients from England and it was very bizarre, in the boiling hot summer, serving up turkey, gravy and all the trimmings.

We had a very famous pianist on board once who was also very eccentric. He called me to his cabin and asked for a sandwich with avocado, beef, mustard and pickle. We didn't have any pickle on board so the chefs made some up from scratch.

Two hours later we presented him with the sandwich, and he said it had only been a joke. Chef went berserk, but you have to laugh.

  • Age 56
  • Family wife and two children
  • Favourite holiday Italy
  • Drives Smart car
  • Motto The job is 24/7 so you need to be flexible and don't forget to cherish your days off


  • 1980 Joined Sea Containers
  • 1983 Cabin steward, senior steward and chief steward on Venice-Simplon Orient Express
  • 2000 Train manager, Northern Belle
  • 2001 Train manager, British Pullman


Don't replace stuff unnecessarily: look in your stores and make sure you use up everything you can. We normally order new linen and silver annually, but not this year and we've found things in storage we'd totally forgotten we had.

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