As someone who has managed to cook some pretty decent food under fairly challenging circumstances, I have always been perplexed about food on trains. Why, when in the rest of our lives, we are experiencing an exciting transformation in what and how we eat, global companies like Virgin, haven’t the insight to apply the same level of innovation in what they offer to their travelling customers? And let’s face it, unless you are on the Orient Express with Jonathan Phang, everyone complains about train food.
There are two things particularly I don’t get. First; why against all odds does first-class catering on trains still attempt to replicate a bygone formal eating experience. Which it does badly. In the early days of trains, there was a restaurant dining car, complete with equipe de cuisine and full service. Very relaxing I am sure. But today the food and service is always sub-optimal and increasingly ridiculous. Today on a train from London to Edinburgh, my breakfast was served in an improvised silver service style by a friendly person wobbling around like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
Secondly, as we have learned more about nutrition and what our bodies need to thrive, the sort of food we are offered in any class continues to exemplify the worst of our nation’s relationship with food. When travelling your body is in an unusual condition – moving a great distance and speed, while sitting down. So it needs careful nourishment, enough to keep one alert but not anxious – not death by a thousand carbs.
I was only half-disappointed to find the Omelette Arnold Bennet off-menu (clearly it could only be a disaster, given the care it takes to make this Savoy delight), but my companion had a full English with bold claims of rare-breed sausages, bacon and free range eggs while I went for an uncomplicated bacon roll (from the same unspecified rare breed). Unsurprisingly the breakfast itself was pre-cooked, reheated and bland. Fit for a cardboard plate at best. But there it was served from stainless steel salvers and decanted on to china plates, just to make sure we are impressed into feeling like this is a first class treat, rather than exactly the same tasteless contents available in the ‘breakfast bap’ a few carriages down.
This sector of corporate service hospitality (we might simply call it travel catering) needs to wake up. They seem to think that if they serve food, however crap, in a posh way, (menu, cutlery, crockery) that we’ll be conned into accepting it and (in this case) worthy of the excessive price increase for first class travel.
More surprising still, particularly from a company owned by Richard Branson, who rates innovation high among his values, is that they can’t see that by doing it differently, it would be easier, more profitable and a wholly better customer experience.
All around Britain, new food and cooking businesses are flourishing because they are taking new approaches. Growing and sourcing the best ingredients from artisans no longer needs to be the preserve of the few. Big companies can easily find economies of scale in the supply chain from smaller independent producers, creating fantastic products. The huge success of the street food revolution and healthy fast-food from around the world, has made eating on the hoof better and easier than ever.
So come on Virgin, forget the bland eggs, stodgy pasta, silver service and awful coffee, here’s an idea for free. How about a trolley service Cereal Bar – loads of amazing healthy grains, fruit & nuts, yoghurt, honey and fruit to start the day and get the blood circulating and a complimentary fresh juice to kick start the brain? Save on staff and washing up (really, no-one cares about real crockery, I promise) and surprise your customers. And for lunch transform it into a soup and salad trolley. Pilot this and I bet it will be a hit. Take an honest look and I’m sure you’ll find that nobody travelling on the 0800hrs to Edinburgh expects Omelette Arnold Bennet.
Just using the terms, first class, silver-service, rare-breed and free-range doesn’t give the experience of travelling on a train, more value than a bus ride. Today in the UK, there is no excuse if you are doing food, not to do it well.