Bringing Innovation to the Table
Around a long wooden table sit a dozen or so women and men in their chef whites.They’re discussing how to make organic meals an affordable option, and whether customers would be willing to pay more for a premium wine service. They wonder how to best reach and train talented young chefs, and how they might acquire and introduce more local ingredients to their meals.
At the table are members of the Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team–a cohort of 10 chefs from around the world who design the food program offered on Amtrak trains. The team, led by Amtrak Executive Chefs Daniel Malzhan and David Gottlieb, is comprised of leading names in the food and catering industry, including Matthias Merges, a Chicago restaurateur known for Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10; Roberto Santibañez, chef and owner of Fonda restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and James Beard Award-winner Jamie Bissonnette, chef and partner of Boston favorites Coppa and Toro, among others.
Along with the rest of the Culinary Advisory Team, these chefs meet to meticulously plan meals that will be recreated aboard Amtrak trains across the country, and to discuss the future of Amtrak’s food service program.
Delivering Delicious Meals Aboard a Moving Train
Making Instagram-worthy meals on a moving train requires special expertise. On Amtrak’s cross country trains, a single chef can be responsible for serving up to 400 meals a day. Chefs must be comfortable prepping their mise en place as the train gently sways back and forth, and will work closely with servers to plate and present customers with their meals.
Despite these unique challenges, Amtrak has an eye on the future of food service and the Culinary Advisory Team is closely monitoring trends in customer preferences. As the team planned additions to the 2017 menu, they discussed whether a Chipotle-style quick-service station would be of interest to customers, or whether a chef-inspired specialty meal would sell well on cross-country trains where customers are likely to seek more variety.
The chefs approach menu development knowing details of what passengers already enjoy. For example, Amtrak’s Signature Steak, a USDA Choice Black Angus flat iron steak, is by far the most-ordered item across all routes. Other favorites, though, change along routes as passengers seek out more regional fare–guests can enjoy red beans and rice on the Sunset Limited, for example, and barbecue pork sandwiches on the Texas Eagle route.
Amtrak chefs know customers value locally-sourced products, and their efforts to bring more of these items on board have been long in the making. In 2007, the culinary team began to make selections from local microbreweries, like Stone IPA, widely available. Today Delaware-based Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA is so popular, it nearly sells-out on every trip. In the mid-west, you can find Lagunitas, Goose Island, and Founders, and along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has teamed up with Taste NY to feature food and beverages produced in New York state along select routes. Offerings include Chobani yogurt, Always Bagels, KIND bars, Sweet Sam’s coffee cakes, as well as Brooklyn Defender IPA, Ommegang Witte Wheat Ale and Nine Pin Cider.
These days, Amtrak is also working to meet the needs of customers with special diets, including those seeking more vegetarian, vegan and healthy options. Along most routes, customers can enjoy a three cheese-filled tortellini pasta in a creamy pesto sauce topped with wax beans, carrots, greens and parsley, and dusted with Parmesan cheese. Many trains now also offer one or more “health forward” options that contains less than 700 total calories per serving. At the Culinary Advisory Team’s planning event in November, chefs tested new health conscious menu items, such as seared salmon, and flavorful black bean and corn couscous.
In a time where people can customize their meals and have high-quality items delivered fresh to their doors, the expectation to provide special meal experiences on board has never been higher.
“Train travel has a unique ability to capture a guest’s attention and provide a memorable and unique experience; we want our cuisine to be at the center of the experience,” said Chef Merges. “Using the latest food prep technology, combined with the creativity of a chef to create engaging and delicious meals, we plan to raise the bar of the overall guest experience.”
Have you experienced a meal on Amtrak? Share your favorite parts of Amtrak’s food service below.