Airline food goes top-flight


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. He 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 with wild rice and Michigan sour cherries, Mr. Trotter admitted that some people don’t understand the marriage of a culinary artist and cost-conscious airline.

He 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 after the 2001 terrorist attacks. American, for example, pared its 16-member chef conclave to six, 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.

Carriers are mostly offering such delicacies to passengers willing to pay thousands of dollars for first- or business-class tickets. They are also 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.

Mr. Trotter noted that customers should not expect restaurant-caliber food in the air.

“I am not as proud of my airline food as my restaurant food,” said Stephan Pyles, a chef for American and owner of Stephan Pyles restaurant in Dallas. “I have no control about what happens on the airplane.”