First-class chefs take flight

Stephan Pyles' cowboy beef filet served with wild mushroom ragout and red chili onions is served to American Airlines' first-class passengers.
Stephan Pyles' cowboy beef filet served with wild mushroom ragout and red chili onions is served to American Airlines' first-class passengers.Courtesy of Stephan Pyles
/ Source: Forbes

Astronauts no longer have to dream about roasted quail or rice pudding while gnawing on bars of freeze-dried ice cream.

On Oct. 23, the Russian spacecraft Progress hurtled toward the International Space Station carrying dishes developed by ADF, part of the empire of Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. Among the special meal choices: Italian caponata, celeriac puree with nutmeg and spicy poultry with Thai-style vegetables.

Though that may be the most dramatic example of top-notch cooking in the sky, you don't need a spacesuit to eat well in flight. You just need a first-class ticket.

The terms "airline food" and "gourmet" seem mutually exclusive — certainly in coach, where the fare is either disappearing or is the subject of comedians' routines. In the front of the plane, though, it's exactly the opposite: First-class dishes often approach haute restaurant quality as more prominent chefs and hotels link with airlines to create in-flight meals.

Among the current lineup: Guy Martin, of Paris' Michelin three star Le Grand Vefour, is consulting for Air France, creating tantalizing dishes like curried lobster; Govind Armstrong of the restaurants Table 8 in Miami and Los Angeles is bringing fresh flavors to Air New Zealand; Stephan Pyles, of the eponymous Dallas restaurant, is one of the chefs creating dishes for American Airlines; Christian Petz, of Vienna's Restaurant Palais Coburg, has paired with Austrian Airlines, also one of the few airlines (British Midland is the other) to put a chef on board to customize and finish cooking the meal in the air.

Chefs sign on for a variety of reasons — the challenge, the exposure, the travel. Airline executives go after marquee names to give them an edge in the competitive international market and offer customers a complete luxury experience in the sky.

"We're in the transportation business; we're all using the same tube, so this is one of the aspects of service that makes us different," says Hermann Freidanck, manager of food and beverage for Singapore Airlines. "We also have mostly long distance flights, so you don't want someone stewing for a long time over a lousy steak or a piece of bad fish. These are business people, achievers, and they know good food."

Singapore has one of the more ambitious food programs. A panel of international culinary stars, among them France's Georges Blanc, London's Gordon Ramsay and New York's Alfred Portale, owner of Gotham Bar & Grill, suggest 40 to 50 new dishes a year. The airline's chefs come to the restaurants to see how the dishes are prepared, then take recipes and photos back to their test kitchens — including one at the Singapore base designed to simulate conditions at 30,000 feet. (One difference with high altitude: taste bud sensitivity is diminished, so dishes need to be seasoned more intensely than they would be on the ground.)

Because of the service limitations in most aircraft — dishes must be cooked by the catering company, then chilled and if they're meant to be served hot, reheated — chefs realize that their dishes are not going to come out exactly the same as they do in the restaurant. Some (soufflés, for an obvious example) are also completely out of the question.

"You can't do sautéed foie gras or anything à la minute (cooked to order)," says Stephan Pyles. "But foie gras terrine works. So do lobster and poached salmon, because they're really nice cold."

Alfred Portale points out that you can't have butter in sauces, because they will fall apart when reheated. "Broths and vinaigrettes work better," he says. "A bollito misto with short ribs in a clarified broth with a green herb sauce was pretty successful. So were shellfish in a bouillabaisse broth and springtime pea soup with morels and white truffle oil."

Big flavors, usually in simple preparations, work the best.

"I tried for foolproof comfort food, things that are straightforward with a lot of flavor but not a lot of ingredients" says Michelle Bernstein, owner of Michy's in Florida and former chef of the Mandarin Oriental's award-winning restaurant, Azul. She recently signed on with Delta's Business Elite. The dish she offered on flights outbound from the U.S. in September — chicken braised in red wine with tomatoes, olives and capers accompanied by mashed Yukon gold potatoes and sugar snap peas with chopped mint — tasted as good, remarkably, as it would in a restaurant. The chicken was juicy and deeply flavored, the snap peas had crunch and you could still taste the mint.

"People have actually come into the restaurant after trying the food on the plane," she reports. Given the reputation of airline food, who could ever have imagined that?