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Amtrak putting finer dining back on track

Railroad passengers with dyspeptic memories of microwave dinners served on plastic plates might have trouble digesting the news that Amtrak has selected a "chef of the year." But the national rail passenger service is rolling with a finer diner on its long-distance trains these days. Linen, china, real glassware, fresh flowers and good food are back.

The champion chef is Luis Pena, 35, of Los Angeles, who beat nine fellow dining-car chefs during a two-day competition sponsored by Amtrak at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., in late May.

Pena triumphed by preparing a gourmet meal from a mystery basket of ingredients he received just before the final cook-off.

Accustomed to a lurching, swaying kitchen on wheels, Pena made quick work of a tossed salad splashed with vinaigrette. He also produced a pork chop a la bordelaise, sauteed broccoli, glazed carrots and potato croquette.

The chefs' competition was partly a public relations attempt by the national rail passenger service to lure customers back to its dining cars, which suffered culinary disaster in the early 1980s as a result of budgetary cutbacks imposed by Congress.