Celebrity Chefs Bring Plane Food to New Heights

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

CHICAGO -- What celebrity chef worth his lamb chops with pomegranate glaze would risk culinary shame by creating airline food -- the butt of innumerable jokes about reheated hash that always seems to taste like chicken or even a salty tire?

Ask Charlie Trotter, a world-renowned chef who owns a five-star restaurant here and has written more than a dozen cookbooks. Trotter recently joined forces with United Airlines, a carrier that had been under bankruptcy protection and is known more these days for cost cutting than exquisite cuisine.

While preparing a potential en-route appetizer of shredded pork complemented by wild rice and Michigan sour cherries, Trotter admitted that some people don't understand the marriage of a culinary artist and cost-conscious airline. " 'Gosh, Charlie, I can't believe you have agreed to do food for an airline,' " Trotter recalled an incredulous friend saying to him.

Trotter is part of a trend sweeping the U.S. airline industry: major carriers upgrading their premium offerings -- especially their menus, with the aid of celebrity chefs. Delta Air Lines in recent years began offering food created by Todd English and Michelle Bernstein. Two other U.S. carriers, Continental Airlines and American Airlines, have also been busy overhauling their offerings with the help of celebrity chefs.

Airlines have a long history of using celebrity chefs to help them create meals for first- and business-class passengers. But most U.S. carriers trimmed or eliminated such programs during the economic turbulence that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks. American, for example, pared its 16-member chef conclave to six and then three.

The recent moves are a sign of the airline industry's economic revival and increasing focus on overseas expansion. Most of the food created by the celebrity chefs is being served on long-haul or international flights. For those in steerage (coach) who have grown accustomed to bags of pretzels, don't start dreaming about Continental's mouth-watering demitasse of seafood bisque with lump crabmeat. Carriers are mostly offering such delicacies to passengers willing to pay thousands of dollars for first- or business-class tickets. They are also increasingly battling international carriers known for their cuisine.

"If you have the chutzpah to charge a customer $8,000 to sit in business class or $10,000 or more than that to sit in first, you better serve a good product," said Henry Harteveldt, vice president of travel industry research at Forrester Research in San Francisco. "The food can't be lousy."

Chefs, known for their egos and bravado, are being thrown into the heart of the airlines' grudge-match battle for passengers with thick wallets. And they are not shy about their abilities to keep customers coming back.

United's on-staff corporate executive chef, Gerry Gulli, noted that American had recently hired Hawaiian chef Sam Choy to help devise its menus for planes heading to and from the island chain. Choy had worked for United several years ago.

"All the recipes we didn't want, American is using," Gulli said with a smirk during an interview at United's headquarters here.

Choy laughed upon hearing Gulli's dig. "They are using all the stuff I taught them years ago," he said.

"I know my airline food is the best, and that's not just ego, either," added Choy, who has helped create such entrees as grilled salmon topped with creamy wasabi and served with shiitake-butter orzo.

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