Season 6 -  Food and drink

Episode 3 - A mass catering operation like none other

Romain Payet — The first hurdle we face is delivering quality catering within the specificities of a train kitchen. Although our dining car contains almost all the same things as a restaurant kitchen, there are a few pitfalls to avoid. Frying, for example. It’s not impossible but, since the train is moving, splashes of hot oil are dangerous and should more or less be avoided. We also need to think about keeping the washing up to a minimum, while keeping up the kind of standards we want for our restaurant. Spoiler alert - on board Midnight Trains, churros, eaten using five sets of cutlery and three glasses is a big no-no.

But when thinking about it, we didn’t want to sell really greasy street food or stuffy dinners. These constraints feel less restrictive with the help of our new partners as resources and contributors in creating the all-important restaurant car. They’re well aware of the constraints. For one restaurant run by our new business partners, they started by choosing a venue for the location, then adapted to it, creating an atmosphere, menu and decor in line with the quirks of the place. It’s a tricky recipe, but we’re going to work hard to transpose it onto our trains.

Adrien Aumont — Our second major constraint is that we represent a market that doesn’t yet exist. At least not right now. Let me explain. Once we’ve launched a few night lines across Europe, we’ll have a decent footprint on the mass catering market. At first, with one line, then two, then three, we will be looking at feeding somewhere between several hundred and several thousand passengers. Which is far too small to work with huge catering companies, and far too big to work with the small suppliers collaborating with the restaurants we love.

Despite this, we reached out to the mass catering industry to understand the processes, working methods, potential quality levels and, possibly, to find a way to work together on very specific quantities. We figured that if we provided them with products we had sourced, and with fairly precise specifications, it might be doable. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we never got to that last step - for two reasons. The first is that none of them agreed to work with the suggested suppliers. The second - a more personal one - visiting their laboratories made me feel sick. The same thing happened as a child in the school canteen. In short, offering something to our clients that disgusts me personally was never going to work.

We’ve also explored the possibility of working with another type of service provider: ‘dark kitchens’, which prepare food on the premises, but aren’t open to the public. Several quite famous Parisian restaurants already use them. In general, they’re not making all the food served in these addresses, but just some parts, which are warmed up on site. Think pie bases, sauces or bread dough. It’s a way of getting quality food that makes it a viable option for us. Except that these sorts of dark kitchens generally provide three or four restaurants with around thirty covers worth. And we’ll need several hundred covers on our first train alone. So it’s just too much for them to handle.

Romain Payet — At the time of writing this, we still haven’t quite nailed our offering. But we’ve certainly settled on the best of both worlds: quality food, using an economically and logistically sustainable model. We don’t want to take the risk of serving bad food and have decided not to serve only artisanal products either, at the risk of facing volume and logistics problems. Instead, we’ll go for a route where the quality of the artisanal produce becomes partially scaleable. Thanks to this kind of model, and reflections with our partners, we’re feeling confident that we can create something beautiful and delicious.

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