But Amtrak chef Malzhan said logistics often can 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 after the chefs' spring 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 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 Los Angeles 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 costs $361. That's about a four-hour drive by car. 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 often is 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.
"It was all good," he said.