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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dining Cars Compete for TV Set

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Chefs who have cut up beets while speeding past Lake Baikal and poured mayonnaise on salads from Novorossiisk to Vladivostok met in the first ever competition for the best restaurant car at Paveletsky Station on Wednesday.

The wagons ran the gamut of the railway network from the aristocratic Krasnaya Strela train No. 1 that travels back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg with its suitably snooty staff to the Moscow-Vladivostok train, where you go nine time zones with one menu on a seven-day journey.

Hundreds of customers, and judges from the Railways Ministry, descended on the 12 wagons parked at platform No. 1 to try out the special business lunch deals for only 40 rubles, as each wagon added some extra dill or another pampushka to their meals in hopes of taking the prize.

Michelin stars were not up for grabs. Food in Russian restaurant cars — like the much maligned British Rail sandwich — is judged by an entirely different standard.

"When I do go there, I choose the thing that can poison me the least," said Tanya, a Muscovite who preferred to eat at home Wednesday.

Vladimir Shateyev, head of the department of passenger travel at the Railways Ministry, said the competition was designed to help improve the level of cooking on trains and for cooks to share knowledge and menus.

And they had plenty of eager customers Wednesday, with many of the wagons full for most of the competition.

Not that food was the only category being judged. People who work in restaurant cars, like barmen, are often more than your average waitresses.

"They relax, the wheels work on the psychology," Valentina Sharova, who manages the restaurant car on the Moscow-Voronezh train, said after serenading the judges on her karaoke machine. Someone who works in a restaurant car, she said, is "not just like a psychologist, but a confessor."

Life for those who work in the restaurants is not easy. Tours of duty can last for 24 days in hot, stuffy conditions. A majority of the tiny kitchens still use oil stoves that look as if they came from a 19th-century farm.

"In summer it's impossible," said chef Svetlana Kluiko, bright red from the heat in the kitchen despite the pouring rain outside. She dreams of getting an electric stove as in the Moscow-Yaroslavl train further down the track.

The Moscow-Kaliningrad wagon, a bright yellow wagon that had been decorated with local amber and a fishing net with large dried fish hanging in it, was buzzing with activity.

Propping up the bar was Vladimir Babanin, 89, who had last been to Kaliningrad in 1945 when as a soldier in the Red Army he had helped drive out the Germans.

"I didn't see any other wagons done like this," said Babanin, sipping cognac.

Three hours after tasting their first borshch, the judges declared Moscow-Kaliningrad the winner, just pipping the Krasnaya Strela and the Moscow-Vladivostok train to the first prize of the combined television and VCR.

And with words that may chill the souls of all peace-loving train travelers, Shateyev presented two karaoke machines to the joint second-place finishers. The machines, he said, should stay permanently in the restaurants cars.