June 26, 2013

For those who rail at train food

Amtrak is going to great lengths to get passengers to take a fresh look at the all-aboard menu.

By LORI ARATANI The Washington Post

WILMINGTON, Del. - Here in a small test kitchen on a dead-end street downtown, some of the food world's greatest minds are at work. Their task might seem impossible, but they believe they can make a difference for millions of Amtrak riders, one roasted chicken at a time.

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Rockin’ KB Chili

The Washington Post

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Amtrak executive chef Christian Hannah, left, with Washington chef Michel Richard, who is working with the rail company to improve the quality of meals sold on its passenger trains.

The Washington Post

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Amtrak has gone gourmet -- or at least it's trying to. In exchange for frequent traveler miles, the rail agency has hired some of the most accomplished chefs in the country, who come together each spring to brainstorm new dishes for Amtrak's menus.

The annual chefs' gathering is part of an effort to change the way riders think about train cuisine. The goal is hipper, more healthful food to tempt the palates of the millions of annual passengers. After all, in a world that embraces designer doughnuts and upscale ramen noodles, why not gourmet train food?

"Everyone wants to stay current," said Tom Douglas, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Seattle, who is in his fifth year of developing dishes for Amtrak. "Customers are more friendly when they've had a meal."

Douglas was joined in Wilmington in March by the likes of Michel Richard, the charming French master behind Washington hot spot Central, and Sara Jenkins, whose rustic Italian cooking has made her East Village restaurants Porchetta and Porsena must-gos. Amtrak's culinary campaign is fueled by the rail service's goal of becoming more self-sustaining and by the demands of customers who live, breathe and drink in a culture that has turned everyone into a connoisseur.

But even the most talented chefs admit that improving Amtrak's food offerings can be an uphill climb. Like airlines back in the days when they actually offered meals to everyone, trains face particular logistical challenges. There is limited equipment and storage space, and items must be able to endure the sometimes bumpy ride.

"In some ways, the food is the easiest part of the equation," said Daniel Malzhan, Amtrak's executive chef for long-distance service.

A passenger's food options vary depending on the route and the fare. There is more choice and, some say, better food on long-distance routes, where the trains are outfitted with small kitchens that include a grill and convection oven. On those routes, passengers can order a steak, grilled to order, or an omelet freshly made with cage-free eggs.

On shorter routes, like those in the Northeast Corridor, there are no kitchen facilities, so food choices are limited to snack-bar-type items, with one exception: On Acela trains, first-class passengers are served full meals, though as on airplanes the entrees are pre-packed, designed to be heated or served as is.

Regardless, persuading riders to spend their money in the cafe car rather than, say, the Chipotle at Washington's Union Station is a challenge. Many passengers said they rarely buy food on board. "Have I eaten on the train?" Todd Valentine said as he waited for a late-afternoon train to New York. "I have, and that's why I have this bag of nuts."

Others have noticed the changes.

'A REALLY NICE SURPRISE'

Fresh off two gigs in Easton, Md., Dennis McNeil, a Los Angeles-based musician, dug into a turkey Gouda wrap on the 11 a.m. Northeast Regional bound for New York. "The meat was flavorful, and I liked the texture of the tortilla," he said. "It really was a nice surprise to see some healthy selections on the menu."

Jim Mathews, a regular Acela rider and former chairman of Amtrak's Riders Advisory Committee, has worked closely with the railroad to improve food offerings. "I think they've taken giant leaps," he said. "They recognize that not everyone wants to live on salt and hot dogs."

(Continued on page 2)

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Pan-roasted corn and leek pasta with seared tomatoes

The Washington Post

  


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