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Chefs' lofty goal: improve plane food

November 04, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Achef in full white uniform approaches you at your seat and explains the menu, asking about your likes and dislikes. He makes it clear that the menu is open to interpretation and that you should feel free to mix and match. Perhaps the roast parsnip soup or maybe the grilled ginger prawns? And for your main course, the grilled sea bass with white cream sauce or the peppered beef fillet?

The beginning of a fine meal at a high-end restaurant? Nope. An example of the Chef on Board of a BMI business-class flight from Chicago to Manchester, England.

"It was one of the best main meals I've ever had on an airline," said frequent flier Brian Sykes of London, who estimates he has flown 150 times on various airlines in two years, usually in first- or business-class.

Sykes chose the sea bass. "I could have eaten another," he said.

Travelers asking for seconds is almost unheard of on an airline. But now, even as airlines cut food service in economy to the equivalent of a brown-bag lunch (or less), they are souping up their first- and business-class meal offerings.

Big-name chefs such as Chicago's Charlie Trotter, who has designed menus for some United Airlines' international first- and business-class flights and domestic P.S. flights, are tying their brands to airline food, which in the past were more often pitied than applauded.

Lufthansa has a rotating series of top chefs who design its first- and business-class menus. A new chef takes the helm every two months. The list of past chefs reads like a who's who of celebrity cooks: Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Joachim Splichal (Patina) and Gabriel Kreuther (the Modern).

Even the chefs competing on the Food Network's "Next Iron Chef" reality series are getting into the game. They flew to Munich, Germany, to design meals for Lufthansa's first-class passengers as part of the competition.

Airline cuisine is not just simply taking a recipe that works on the ground and microwaving it aloft. Chefs have to take into account how high altitude, cabin pressure and cook-and-chill procedures alter the food's flavor.

"It was such an incredible exercise to go through," said chef John Besh, one of the "Next Iron Chef" competitors and an award-winning executive chef with Restaurant August, Besh Steakhouse, Luke and La Provence, all in New Orleans. "You've got to be ultra-organized when there's nothing to fall back on."

And for an airline the size of United or Lufthansa, which serves about 75,000 meals a month to premium passengers, the logistics and planning in designing menus is daunting.

"In a promotional partnership like with Charlie Trotter, that whole process starts with bouncing ideas off each other," said United's corporate executive chef Gerry Gulli.

Local tastes and availability of fresh ingredients are taken into consideration, as are the logistical challenges.

"The food has to be cooked, transported chilled and brought up to temperature," Gulli said.

Food also tastes different in a pressurized airplane at 35,000 feet, chefs say, so the preparation of a dish served in Trotter's restaurant will differ. Gulli took the Trotter menu into the air and tested it on real passengers under real-world conditions.

The result?

"We had three requests in the first cabin alone for the recipes," Gulli said.

Still, some passengers will be disappointed. "By reading the menu, you would have expected at least some tingle from such a celebrated chef," said Carl Chu of Manhattan Beach. He recently tasted the Trotter menu on a United P.S. flight from New York to Los Angeles. "I felt that the lamb medallion sounded like fun but tasted like a bore. Although the cut was tender and well-cooked, it lacked much flavor."

Chu is perhaps more discerning than many passengers. He is the publisher of Manhattan Beach-based Cross Bridge Publishing, which publishes such foodie titles as the "Chinese Food Finder" series.

"This was still airline food after all," he said. "If I want a good meal, I'll make reservations at a restaurant, not on an airline."


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