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On the road with a professional eater

Madi Butler will spend 50 days this summer traveling from dining destination to dining destination by train, part of an effort to popularize that mode of transportation. Restaurant Business caught up with her during a stop in New York City.
Photograph courtesy of Madi Butler

Madison “Madi” Butler is about two weeks into a 50-day business trip, though it’s tough to say where business leaves off and the pure dining adventure kicks in. A train-travel enthusiast as well as a chef, the culinary school grad has been retained as an intern to ride Amtrak from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco, zig-zagging north and south to eat and cook in some of the nation’s hottest restaurants. Her assignment is to popularize train travel as an option for foodies and other sports diners who base their vacation plans in part on a possible destination’s restaurant scene.

Waiting for an 11:30 a.m. train out of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, with Wilmington, Del., next on her 20-city itinerary, the 26-year-old readily acknowledges that she may have the best summer internship in the world. She was still relishing her stop at Idle Hour in Quincy, Mass., just outside Boston, as well as a taste of true New York City deli fare at Frankel’s, the Brooklyn landmark. 

She’s clearly excited to be working her way closer to New Orleans, where she’ll be working a stage in the kitchen of Brennan’s, but acknowledged that she had no inkling of what sort of places she’ll find in Wilmington. (Consider Harry’s Savoy Grill, a well-intentioned reporter advises.)

Most of the dining destinations have been chosen by Butler, with a few requests thrown in by her benefactor, the Rail Passengers Association (RPA), an advocate for train travel and federal support of the Amtrak system. 

“I follow my patron saint, Anthony Bourdain,” she says. Recommendations also come from food blogs, fellow travelers and the establishments she visits. 

Her rules are that the establishment be local, so national chains are out, and that the establishment be accessibly priced. So far, nowhere she’s eaten has charged more than $40 a plate.

The train stops on her trek were selected in collaboration with the RPA. The itinerary includes not only dining-out meccas such as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles but also lesser known foodie favorites such as Greenwood, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Albuquerque, N.M. 

Butler says she typically doesn’t eat alone during her stops. Other rail enthusiasts will often join her, learning of her adventure from her blog on the association’s website, SummerByRail.com, or through the RPA. Outgoing and self-assured, she also readily strikes up conversations with fellow passengers of any train she’s riding.  

Part of her mission is trying hotels that might catch a destination shopper’s attention. Most of her meals are taken in restaurants, but she acknowledges a penchant for a simple New York-style breakfast of a bagel and coffee, a self-avowed betrayal of her Southern upbringing. She grew up in a remote part of Kentucky and now lives in Austin, Texas. 

Her time on an Amtrak or Acela is sometimes long enough to mandate a lunch from the Cafe Car, the train system’s snack bar on wheels. The fare is not exactly renowned for its quality, but Butler demurs. “I love the Cafe Car,” she says.

She adds, “It’s changing. I promising you it’s changing.” She had the opportunity to visit Amtrak’s test kitchen and see what’s being developed by its food and beverage director, Chris Hannan. 

“He told me, ‘We know what we need to change,’” says Butler. The culinary team is looking at innovations such as menus that combat travel fatigue and “how you bridge that gap between customers who just want a quick hamburger and people who are traveling for long distances.” 

She also expresses delight that Amtrak is looking at breakthroughs such as cups that don’t require a straw. As a personal chef, caterer and consultant who’s logged plenty of time in commercial kitchens, she’s aware of how much waste is generated by the business. It’s a sore point for the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts graduate, who describes herself as an advocate as much as a culinarian. 

Indeed, she sought out the internship in part because she believes trains are preferable to cars as a mode of summer travel. “People my age, we don’t want to own cars, we don’t want to drive cars,” she says. “We want to get there by public transportation.”

As this year’s Summer by Rail intern, Butler knows she’s in a dream job: getting paid to eat and travel (she receives a stipend from the RPA, but says she’s contractually prohibited from revealing the amount.) But there are some downsides. “I miss my dog,” as well as the family of ducks her partner, fellow chef Robert Beck, adopted back in Austin, Butler says. “I miss cooking.”

Then there’s the job hazard that comes with being a professional eater. “I’m 5 feet, 2 inches, so there’s a point where I run out of room to put more food,” she says, glancing at a clock to see if it’s time to board yet.

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