This afternoon I was stunned by my discovery of this archived Oakland Tribune newspaper article about my great grandfather, William Leon Whitley, Jr dated February 9, 1969. Below is my transcription of the article and a few added pictures already in my possession.
Oakland Tribune – Sun., Feb. 9, 1969
S.P. CHEF – HIS FOOD WAS ART
By Harre W. Demoro
Tribune Staff Writer
People are in too much of a hurry today to savor the art work of William L. Whitley.
“They come in and order a four-minute egg and they want it in two minutes,” says Whitley, 65, who is retiring as instructing chef of the Southern Pacific’s shrinking Dining Car Department, at West Oakland.
“What worries me is the younger men. As for me, I’m through. I feel for the younger men with families.”
Whitley was in the “club car” of the Cascade that had just arrived on an overnight run from Portland. Appropriate surroundings to hear Whitley tell his story. “I wouldn’t bring my son down here,” he said, looking out the window.
Whitley said he started on the dining cars in 1919 on a part-time basis while he was finishing school. He signed on full time in 1922.
“This was the largest commissary in the world,” he said, referring to the huge complex SP once had in West Oakland and Portland. “My father was a chef here. He started to work for the company in 1902.”
There was a rule against members of the same family working aboard the same trains, but for some long-forgotten reason it was not applied to the Whitley father-son team.
“I started as a dishwasher on train Number 654 between Oakland and Portland. My father taught me. I worked with him right in the kitchen and I thought he was too tough for me. In later years I can see what he was trying to teach me. He was tough,” the younger Whitley recalled with a grin.
“Within three months I was elevated to third cook. Within a year’s time I made second cook. In 1925 I was made a chef. I ran on trains up until 1945, when they made me instructing chef.
We used to make lobster patties and chicken a la poulette…we experimented. Some of the recipes came from old-time chefs, and some we made ourselves…we had to prepare everything from the bottom. We had to make all the pie dough and soup stock…we made pies right on the train.”
Today, they are baked at the commissary. A typical dining crew in the old days consisted of four cooks and six or seven waiters. Today, there are only two Eastbay SP trains with diners. The Cascade has two cooks and three waiters; the City of San Francisco, two cooks and two waiters.
William Whitley on the Sunset Limited in 1942
Artificial flowers are used instead of real ones. When he worked on the old Sunset Limited out of San Francisco, four cooks prepared meals for 150 persons in two hours.
And each meal was prepared individually. “Steaks broiled to order,” he said. This is one menu item that has not totally disappeared.
Although SP’s cooks had to be experts, Whitley also required them to follow recipes exactly as printed in cook books, and he said that is a rule housewives should follow.
Many of the gastronomic delights Whitley perfected are now in the official SP cook books.
William L. Whitley, Jr.
Whitley says his wife, Nanearl is an expert chef, but wasn’t much of a cook when they married 46 years ago. “She’s learned on her own.”
Among the dignitaries who enjoyed Chef Whitley’s cuisine were Earl Warren, now Chief Justice of the United States, and the late Joseph R. Knowland, publisher of the Tribune. Both men were on the diner one day and Warren’s two daughters came back into the kitchen to observe Whitley’s skills. “I baked a cherry pie for his daughters,” Whitley said.
“Retirement doesn’t bother me. I keep busy.”
Whitley, who lives in Berkeley, is active in Menelik Shrine Temple No. 36 and plans “to get on a few committees.”
He has three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “I’ve got a gang of kids.”
Whitley has been “on vacation” since Feb. 1. His retirement starts officially Feb. 28. On Saturday there will be a big retirement dinner for him in Berkeley. The guest speaker will be former State Assemblyman W. Byron Rumford. The two have been friends for years–ever since a youthful Rumford knocked on the Whitley door to deliver some packages.
“I’m not going to grow old,” Whitley said.
For more on my great grandfather’s recipes, click on the image below.