Star chef Michel Richard takes on airline food for OpenSkies

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; E01

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.

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.)

At the first Dulles meeting, no cooking took place. Instead, managers from OpenSkies, Servair and LSG Sky Chefs, seven including Woods-Hulse, assembled around a conference table with Richard and business partner Carl Halvorson and went through the recipes, raising and answering questions.

Will the side dressing for the Caesar salad be made in-house or store-bought? (Store-bought, due to labor cost considerations.) Should the tomatoes in the salad be skinned? (Yes.) Can we leave the gelatin in a sauce and the cognac in a dressing? (No: The gelatin had to go because of vegetarians and for religious reasons; the cognac, because the food must be child-friendly). Should we ditch avocado from the Caesar salad? (Yes. Too inconsistent in texture and color). Should the rind be removed from the cheese on the cheese plate? (No.) How big is the salmon portion? (Five ounces.)

The second training day took place mostly in the LSG kitchen, with Richard overseeing Woods-Hulse and his assistant, account chef Michael Mason. Guy Bemrick, LSG senior analyst for international accounts, trailed them, weighing and measuring every ingredient, making notes about recipe changes and photographing final products.

Once the items were prepared, they were plated on the actual materials to be used in flight. Wedgwood china is used for food served in OpenSkies' pricier Biz Bed class; many items served to passengers in the Biz Seat class are plated on plastic. Here, problems arose. The crab coleslaw began to weep after an hour; the dressing would be unsightly if it ran on the plate. The solution for Biz Bed was to plate the slaw in a small bowl instead. For Biz Seat, the slaw would be scooped into endive leaves.

Richard understood where to pick his battles. The fact that Katy's Heavy Duty mayonnaise, in gallon jugs from mega food distributor Sysco Corp., went into the slaw dressing didn't faze him, but the canned, pasteurized, non-lump crabmeat from China did. (LSG minions immediately ran to Wegmans and bought $55 worth of jumbo lump.) He was especially firm about cooking both the salmon and the chicken at lower temperatures for less time.

"If all the moisture comes out of the chicken before it goes into that oven on the plane, it will be a rock," he lamented.

But then he conceded a bit. After all, he said, "They're not running a little restaurant. They're running a huge restaurant," and those HACCP guidelines are uber-strict. "Maybe they're cooking the chicken to 150 degrees, 160 degrees, I don't know."

In fact, the LSG cooks are allowed to undercook the chicken in the poaching stage because it would reach the required internal temperature of 165 while being deep-fried.

A week before the June inauguration day of Richard's food in flight, he returned to Dulles for a dry run, in which dishes were served to him as they would be on the aircraft. The salmon was a bit overcooked, and the sweet potato puree was a little too thick, but those were easily fixed.

Though food offerings in coach have dwindled to near-disappearance, in some cases even on overseas flights, Richard is not the first celebrity chef to partner with an airline interested in improving business- and first-class food. Air France enlisted Michelin-starred chefs Joël Robuchon, Guy Martin and Jacques Le Divellec to design meals that included foie gras and guinea fowl. Among other partnerships: New Orleans's John Besh with Lufthansa Airlines, and Miami's Michelle Bernstein with Delta.

What would possess chefs to give up the one thing they treasure most, control, to make a type of food that is notorious for being awful?

In Richard's case, it's certainly not the money.

"Oof!" he exclaims. "I've been working with them over three months, and they've paid me $5,000. Not much. My wife's not going to spend time with any grand designers."

Halvorson is clearer about his motive: "This is a good marketing opportunity for us," he said. But Richard's ambitions are loftier. "I already make a good living," he said. "I want to be able to help create a better restaurant in the sky, like Joël Robuchon is helping Servair do in France."

He has yet to see for himself whether on OpenSkies he has succeeded. Richard had planned to be on the June 2 flight on which his food premiered but had to postpone his trip until July. What he tastes when he flies will help him determine whether to continue his relationship with OpenSkies after July. For now, everything's pretty much up in the air.


Cream of Wheat With Berries

Hagedorn writes the Food section's monthly Real Entertaining column.

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