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Star chef Michel Richard takes on airline food for OpenSkies

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It sounds like a "Top Chef" moment, but this challenge is real: Teach the catering staff at two airports, separated by an ocean, how to replicate your signature dishes, then reheat and serve them.

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At 38,000 feet.

At least seven hours after they have been cooked.

Since February, chef Michel Richard has been working with OpenSkies, the all-business-class subsidiary of British Airways, to design and implement menus for service this month and next on flights between Washington and Paris, and from Paris to Newark, N.J. For Richard, the partnership has been something like the culinary version of a game of "telephone," where the goal is to maintain the integrity of the food as it passes down a line of people, farther and farther from the control of its creator and under circumstances light years from those in his own kitchen.

Cooks at Central, Richard's bustling Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, have the luxury of finishing dishes to order, but security concerns require that every airline meal be cooked and packaged five hours before a flight departs. And that's before a security company checks each container and seals it.

To prevent food-borne illness, most airline catering kitchens subscribe to a stringent system of food handling and record-keeping guidelines known as HACCP. All cooked foods must immediately be blast-chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and kept cold until meals are portioned, packed and loaded into carts outfitted with dry ice. The carts travel by truck to be lifted and loaded onto the aircraft. (Obviously, delicate -- and tall -- foods are out.)

On board, the hot portion of each meal gets reheated for 15 to 20 minutes in a 300-degree convection oven and served about two hours after takeoff. The window of time in which food can deteriorate is considerable.

Here's what that means for something like Richard's fried chicken. At Central, cooks roll boneless, skinless chicken breasts in plastic wrap and poach them in water held at 155 degrees in a sous-vide machine until they are barely pink in the center. They slather the cooled breasts in chicken pureed with milk, coat them with chunky bread crumbs, deep-fry them, and serve them immediately.

LSG Sky Chefs at Washington Dulles International, one of the catering companies handling Richard's menu, has no sous-vide machine, so executive chef Roderick Woods-Hulse poaches the chicken, per HACCP guidelines, at a temperature just below boiling and then blast-chills it. For reasons of consistency and availability, LSG uses store-bought panko bread crumbs instead of the ones Central cooks make from day-old whole loaves of Italian bread. Once the chicken is fried, it's blast-chilled again, portioned with blast-chilled sweet-potato puree, and sent to the airport.

The result? Well, we weren't on the plane; a round-trip ticket would have set us back $1,933 or $3,206, depending on whether we chose a regular seat or a seat that converted to a bed. But the prototype chicken made during a two-hour training session last month at Dulles was surprisingly crunchy, even moist in the center. Not as good as the original, but a reasonable facsimile.

The rest of Richard's menu had undergone similar adjustments. Weeks before, Richard had sent Woods-Hulse recipes for an entree Caesar salad, offered in lieu of a hot meal; an appetizer, Chesapeake crab coleslaw; two main-course options, the aforementioned fried chicken and baked salmon with eggplant and mozzarella stuffing and tomato basil sauce; a cheese plate; and a dessert pudding of Cream of Wheat With Berries.

Richard knew the drill; he had gone to Paris at the end of April to train chefs at Servair at the Paris Orly airport, who are preparing a different menu for the return flights to Washington as well as flights from Paris to Newark. (The food is not served on the Newark-to-Paris leg.)


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