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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
Still, Harvey, who is often upgraded to first class because of his frequent travel, said he's not sure he'd spend the extra dollars just to get the food.
Other passengers say Amtrak's meals have sold them on first-class travel.
Vans Stevenson, senior vice president for state government affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America, opted to take an evening train so he could have the dinner. As he settled into his seat on the 7 p.m. Acela out of New York's Pennsylvania Station, he studied the menu and contemplated his choices: herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, Rockin' KB Chili (named for advisory team member Bob Rosar and his wife, Katy), a wheat berry salad. Hmmm. Stevenson nibbled on the Love Train Snacks, a mix of nuts and cranberries infused with chef Douglas' smoky rub.
"Tonight I'll probably do the herb chicken. But I've had the wheat berry salad, and that's also good," he said.
Next to him, Sharon Smith, an attorney who rides the train from Philadelphia to New York four days a week, said the meals are the best part of the ride. She ticked off some of her favorite entrees: Rockin' KB Chili, the herb-roasted chicken. She doesn't, however, care for the salted caramel creme brulee, which would accompany this evening's meal. Too sweet.
Stevenson later pronounced his chicken "moist" -- "they use the leg and thigh, so it's got more flavor" -- and the peas that accompanied it "flavorful." He knows it isn't the same fare he'd get at Richard's Central or Jenkins' Porchetta, but for what it is -- a meal on a train -- it more than did the job.
Said Stevenson: "It was all good."