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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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But although Amtrak's efforts may be winning over passengers like McNeil and Mathews, the rail system continues to have its critics in Congress, particularly Republicans who have pushed to privatize Amtrak's food operations and criticized the prices Amtrak charges for everything, including a hamburger and a bottle of water. And despite the inclusion of more-healthful choices, those are far from the biggest sellers.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to revamp menu offerings revolves around Amtrak's Culinary Advisory Team. For almost a decade, the group has gathered in Wilmington, home to Amtrak's National Training Center, for an intensive three-day session of cooking and brainstorming. One group of chefs focuses on menu items for short-range trips, while the other focuses on the long-distance menu.

"It's great fun," Richard said. "We cook. We eat."

The chefs arrive armed with their own recipes. Douglas likes to do his own shopping so he can create menu items that use local produce and meats. Among the dishes Richard offered at this year's gathering: a braised pork chop with persillade on a bed of white beans and roasted vegetables. In all, the chefs sampled more than 100 offerings.

But Amtrak chef Malzhan says logistics can often trump taste. A dish can be fabulous but might not be able to clear the hurdles required to make it onto an Amtrak menu or might not fit into the mix. That was the case with a set of pastas that were determined to be too tomato-based to fit with other menu items.

Of the dozens of recipes offered during these gatherings, only a handful may ever make it to an Amtrak menu, Malzhan said during a brief tour of the test kitchen a few weeks after the chefs' gathering. In selecting a dish, he said, he must consider such factors as how it will be packaged and stored, how well it will travel and whether vendors can secure the ingredients in large enough quantities.

Earlier in the day, Malzhan was tweaking and testing a spinach-mushroom frittata recipe that Jenkins, the New York chef, had introduced at the most recent chefs' conclave. Amtrak's 20-by-40-foot test kitchen is outfitted with some of the same equipment found on its trains: small convection ovens, microwaves, grill. On a sheet of paper, Malzhan scribbled notes to a vendor who will try to replicate the dish -- another in a series of steps necessary to see if it will work for Amtrak's menu.

A DIVERSITY OF DISHES

The chefs' gathering has spawned dishes as diverse as a spice-rubbed Atlantic salmon fillet and vegetarian shell pasta with corn, leeks and Parmesan cheese. One dish -- a Douglas creation -- prompted a passenger to write to the Los Angeles Times' Culinary S.O.S. column in search of the recipe for "the most delicious" lamb shanks with mushrooms she and her husband sampled in the regular dining car of the Southwest Chief route that took them from L.A. to Chicago.

Richard, who has done similar consulting work for OpenSkies, the all-business-class subsidiary of British Airways, said he has enjoyed the challenge of re-creating his signature offerings, but he acknowledges that it can be difficult to achieve perfection when so much of the food is being prepared by a vendor.

In Acela first class, where passengers recline in leather seats and meals are served on china plates bearing the Amtrak logo, a one-way ticket from New York to Washington cost $361. A meal -- as well as cocktails, beer, wine and other beverages -- is included in the fare.

But is it worth it?

Dave Harvey of Bethesda, Md., said he was surprised to learn that Richard and Douglas are among Amtrak's culinary consultants, but he said he has noticed a difference in the quality and taste of the first-class entrees. "It's definitely better than it was last fall," said the software company executive, recalling a recent dinner of beef tips and yellow squash. "There's more flavor."

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Pan-roasted corn and leek pasta with seared tomatoes

The Washington Post

  


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