Nightly News | April 22, 2012
>>> it's fair to say that airline food doesn't get much respect these days. if there's food offered at all. so there's plenty of incentive for airlines to be creative in their menus to keep their customers coming back for more.
>> reporter: for most passengers, in-flight dining is peanuts or pretzels. when it's a real meal, it gets a bad rap.
>> not five-star, not healthy.
>> reporter: what's the toughest thing about being an airline chef.
>> telling people that you're an airline chef.
>> reporter: jokes aside, united airlines executive chef jerry mclaughlin is a critical player in the multibillion dollar competition for customers, especially those in first class.
>> those are the customers that pay the higher tickets and the expectations when we look at competition are higher.
>> reporter: at united's test kitchen outside of chicago, mclaughlin designs high-end designing options for the world's largest air carrier .
>> a beautiful amazon cod. this is done with sweet plantains.
>> reporter: several factors are working against him.
>> when you're in the air, you lose about 20% of your taste buds .
>> reporter: at 30,000 feet a dry pressurized cabin dulls taste buds . it makes meals less enjoyable. to compensate for all that, mclaughlin cooks with some kick.
>> you need to spice up the product a little bit. not messily salt and pepper , but just bring out more intense flavors.
>> reporter: those flavors must survive a process of partial cooking and then cooling. once onboard flight attendants will hopefully reheat to perfection. taste is one challenge. cost is quite another. unlike five-star restaurants that can lavishly spend or ingredients, airlines are operating with razor-thin margins.
>> the way to counteract that is to get higher paying passengers in the cabin.
>> reporter: back at the test kitchen , a taste of first class.
>> we look forward to seeing you on united.
>> reporter: can you get me in first class? in the front cabin, it's bon apetit . otherwise, enjoy the peanuts.