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 think 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 each year's millions of 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."
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 may order a steak, grilled to order, or an omelet freshly made with cage-free eggs.
On shorter routes, such as 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 café 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 might 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 met 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; the other focuses on the long-distance menu.
"It's great fun," said Michel Richard, the French master behind the Washington hot spot that bears his name. "We cook. We eat."
Of the dozens of recipes offered during these gatherings, only a handful might 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.
The chefs' gathering has spawned dishes as diverse as spice-rubbed Atlantic salmon fillet and vegetarian shell pasta with corn, leeks and Parmesan cheese.
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 is $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., surprised to learn that Richard and Douglas are among Amtrak's culinary consultants, 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."
This recipe was inspired by New York chef Sara Jenkins, chef-owner of Porchetta and Porsena in New York and a member of Amtrak's Culinary Advisory Team. Jenkins worked with Amtrak's executive chef for long-distance service, Daniel Malzhan, to create the dish, which is being served on select Amtrak routes.
Pan-roasted corn and leek pasta with seared tomatoes
8 ounces dried shell-shaped or gemelli pasta (not mini-size)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 medium cloves garlic
11/2 cups (6 ounces) white sweet corn kernels, frozen and thawed or fresh
2 thin leeks, white and light-green parts, cut into 1/4-inch dice then rinsed well (4 ounces trimmed)
Leaves from 2 or 3 stems thyme
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly shredded grana padana or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
16 cherry or grape tomatoes, each cut in half
Chopped parsley, for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and pasta. Cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a medium nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt, stirring to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in pasta cooking water; cook until mixture has reduced by two-thirds, about 8 minutes. Turn off heat.
Heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until oil shimmers. Add corn, leeks, thyme and salt to taste, stirring to coat vegetables. Cook without stirring for 15 minutes or until vegetables start to brown on the edges, then toss to cook until they are more uniformly lightly browned, for 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in cream to form a sauce; cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until sauce reduces by half. Reduce heat to medium-low; add onion-garlic mixture to corn-leek mixture, plus cheese and pepper to taste.
Add pasta and stir to coat; once it has heated through, remove from heat.
Heat the nonstick sauté pan used to cook the onion-garlic mixture over medium-high heat. Add tomato halves, cut sides down; cook for 15 seconds, then turn them over and cook for 15 to 25 seconds, until nicely seared.
Divide pasta among wide, shallow bowls. Garnish with chopped parsley and cheese, then arrange equal portions of tomatoes atop each serving. Serve warm. Makes 4 or 5 servings.
Nutrition per serving based on 5: 440 calories, 10 g. protein, 47 g. carbohydrates, 25 g. fat, 45 mg. cholesterol, 110 mg. sodium, 4 g. dietary fiber, 5 g. sugar.