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 year 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 by the likes of Michel Richard, the charming French master behind Washington, D.C., hot spot Central, and Sara Jenkins, whose rustic Italian cooking has made her New York City 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, as 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, such as in the Northeast Corridor, there are no kitchen facilities, so food choices are limited to snack-type items, with one exception: On high-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington, 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."
Though Amtrak's efforts may be winning over passengers such as 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.