From Maine to California: a chef’s journey by train

We chatted with U.S. chef Madi Butler about her journey to discover the diversity of U.S. cuisine.

Image credit: A&J Fotos/iStock
Chef Madi Butler traveled across the U.S. to discover the cuisine of the nation. Image credit: A&J Fotos/iStock

Kentucky-born-and-raised Madi Butler may have spent her childhood cooking casseroles in an easy-bake oven, but her love of food has taken her on a journey spanning the entire nation.

Butler was working in event planning and catering in Austin when she made the decision to apply for the Summer by Rail internship. As a professionally trained chef, she certainly wasn’t lacking in technical skills but was feeling a little burnt out as both an organizer and a chef.

Seeking new life experiences and fresh culinary inspiration, Butler was accepted by the Rail Passenger’s Association as their 2019 Summer by Rail intern. Each year, one intern is picked out of hundreds of applicants to spend their summer pursuing a personal passion by way of the U.S. Amtrak train network. Prior years have seen a baseball enthusiast visit minor league stadiums, and a nature lover explore some of the U.S.’s most beautiful national parks.

For Butler, the internship saw her spend her summer crisscrossing the U.S. by Amtrak train, traveling from Maine to California, spanning 50 days, 24 destinations, and 6,000 miles.

Butler’s itinerary was built around the U.S.’s rich and varied gastronomy. She attended Boston Chowderfest, sampled gumbo and andouille sausage in New Orleans, and tasted mesquite-smoked whiskey in Tucson – just to name a few. At each destination, she met up with local chefs, food critics, and local personalities and learned valuable new skills which have helped to broaden her culinary knowledge.

We spoke to Butler about her passion for food and how traveling across the U.S. has influenced her cooking.

A train journey through U.S. Image credit: JamesBrey/iStock
A train journey through U.S. Image credit: JamesBrey/iStock

As a born-and-bred Kentuckian, how would you describe the gastronomy of your home state?

Kentucky is home to a beautiful variety of foods. It is the gateway to the south and one of the most fertile places to grow food. While it is a myriad of traditions that meets in the Bluegrass State, I would say our ingredients are what stand out, more so than how they are combined.

While farm-to-table may be trending, it is something we never lost sight of. The people of western Kentucky and Appalachia alike have always been DIYers, making honest food from scratch and incorporating local ingredients.

Many folks will say it is the Hot Brown or Bourbon that are essential Kentucky experiences, but for me, it is the jams, roasted field veggies, pickles, game meat, and homebrews that make it such a special experience. 

Do you remember the first thing you ever cooked?

I had an easy-bake oven as a kid and I put in a lot of time experimenting with that old thing. I remember a lot of soups, crockpot meals, casseroles, and roasts in my early days. 

What did you like the most about traveling by train?

Definitely getting to see the whole country. This is the issue with flying, you miss all the beautiful nuance that shifts as each region is unveiled.

Where in the U.S. surprised you the most with its cuisine?

The Southwest. I love interior Mexican and Tex-Mex but had only some experience with New Mexican and Sonoran food. Seeing ingredients I love manifested in completely different ways invigorating and inspiring. 

Can you describe a few particularly special meals you enjoyed during your trip?

One meal that definitely stands out is the pre-contact menu at Pueblo Harvest in Albuquerque, NM. The culinary team there has done a fantastic job utilizing ingredients grown, harvested, and celebrated by First Nations and Indigenous groups to create a historical experience.

While we have seen a lean towards European menus in our post-colonial era, it is so important to engage the history of the Southwest Region and pay homage to the earliest traditions of this continent.

What new ingredients did you discover that you’re excited to cook with in the future?

Cholla buds – ancient cholla buds are new to me. I’m a huge fan of nopales, having lived in Texas, and the firm texture and more nutty flavor of the Cholla bud is very intriguing.

Clams – Having been raised in the south, I have limited experience with clams but my time in the northeast showed me just how versatile they can be.

How has the experience influenced you as a chef?

I have learned so much. Not only in how ingredients are honored by region and history, but how we use food as a platform to communicate and care for one another.

This opportunity has revitalized me on a multitude of levels and stoked my creativity once again. I have a few hundred pages of notes, menus, ingredients, and ideas that I hope to manifest moving forward.

I’ve debated writing a cookbook/memoir based on my experiences and that is something I am still considering. 

For someone with just a few days – what train U.S. rail journey would you recommend?

Taking a day trip or a weekender is a great experience, and since you don’t have to drive you’ll have more energy when you arrive. I really enjoyed The Downeaster through Maine, The Carolinian in the south, and the Coastal Starlight heading north in California for shorter trips. 

What are some must-pack items for long-distance train travelers?

Comfortable activewear, good walking shoes, dried fruit, single-serving condiments, a swimmer’s towel, and a battery charger for devices. 

I managed to do 50 days with a small carry-on bag and a backpack. While that may not suit all travelers, I found myself slimming down and donating any items I did not find useful once I was en route. Relying on a capsule wardrobe and non-perishable items kept me on track. 

Can you share a few gastronomical gems that you discovered on your journey?

Idle Hour, Quincy, Maine – fantastic rotating menu and impressive cocktails to match.

Frankel’s, Brooklyn, NYC – huge portions, low prices, and traditional flavors. Skip the line at Katz’ and enjoy this amazing deli experience.

Brookland Pint, Washington DC – attached to the redline stop of the same name, the beers in rotation and comfort foods served will take the edge off any commute.

Mert’s Heart and Soul, Charlotte, North Carolina – This is the best culinary experience in Charlotte. The soul rolls are amazing.

Jimbeaux’s, New Orleans, Louisiana – come for happy hour, stay for the oyster flambeaux.

LC BBQ, Kansas City, Missouri – perfect burnt ends in a no-frills straight-up smoky heaven.

Campo, Albuquerque, New Mexico – located on the Los Poblanos grounds, this is the ideal spot for a birthday, anniversary, or major life celebration. The menu is intimate, fresh, creative, and romantic.

Pueblo Harvest, Albuquerque, New Mexico – From kool-aid pickles and fry bread to bison carpaccio and amaranth cake, the team has created an unforgettable and unapologetically region experience any American traveler would benefit from.

Maynards Kitchen, Tucson, Arizona – get off the train and walk straight inside. This is the best platform-adjacent culinary venue I have experienced in my travels.

Downtown Bar & Kitchen, Tucson, Arizona – one of the spearheads of the UNESCO Gastronomy movement, this is a pentacle of the upscale Tucson food scene.

Burma Superstar, Alameda, California – no reservations and uncompromising flavors. I recommend the tea salad for anyone looking to refresh and recharge.

La Fromagerie, San Francisco, California – With multiple locations in SF, the La Fromagerie team curate flavors and shake up the salad/sandwich options. The balance of flavor, size, and price for all their menu options – c’est magnifique!


Grace Catherine

Grace is a freelance writer and digital project manager from New Zealand currently based in Mexico City. She is an avid traveler who loves destinations with an eclectic history, a bike-sharing scheme, and plenty of cool animals.