The next pioneering frontier in the culinary world? Just head to a terminal at any given airport, which is now likely to boast a range of restaurants from some of our leading chef figures. Take, for instance, Tom Bradley terminal at LAX. There you can grab a neapolitan pie from 800 Degrees, a burger from Umami, or a sandwich from Michael Voltaggio’s ink.sack. Even Suzanne Goin, whose restaurant AOC regularly tops dining lists, has a project of her own.
But an entire new set of challenges presents itself to chefs and restaurants looking to make their food available onboard. In a New York Times article entitled “Can Airline Food Be Tasty?” that was published two year ago, author Jad Mouawad outlines the difficulties for diners aboard airplanes. The nose dries out. Tastebuds are numbed. Plain and simple, tastes differ when atmospheric conditions change. “Airlines tend to salt and spice food heavily and serve wines that are full-bodied fruit bombs,” says Mouawad. “Without all that extra kick, the food would taste bland. Above the Atlantic, even a decent light Chablis would taste like lemon juice.”
To circumvent these problems, many airlines are hiring high-profile acts like Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay, and Michelle Bernstein to develop on-flight meals for first class and business passengers who “generate a majority of the revenue. Keeping high-end customers is crucial to the bottom line,” says Mouawad. Los Angeles’ very own Patina Restaurant Group is the latest example to make the jump. Teaming up with Japan’s largest airline All Nippon Airways, Patina chef Joachim Splichal will create an in-flight, seasonal menu for business passengers flying out of LAX beginning December 1st. The first round includes organic scrambled eggs on toasted brioche with Hass avocados, applewood smoked bacon and crispy breakfast potatoes; for lunch and dinner, grouper with almond pistou, cranberry beans and confit tomatoes, or a fillet of beef with black chanterelle mushrooms.
While this is great news for passengers who have grown accustomed to subpar turkey sandwiches and grilled chicken breasts, it leaves some observers wondering about how the decision affects the reputation of participating chefs. As Mouawad points out, meals “can only be reheated, not cooked, on board.” The best options available are convection or steam ovens. The risks seem to be high for Patina, an institutional restaurant woven into the fabric of this city. It is impossible (scientifically speaking) for an in-flight fillet of beef to taste as good as the one coming out their kitchen. And yet if the passenger is a frequent flyer, then it is the in-flight Patina meal that will come to define my experience of this restaurant.
Mouawad says that “Delta calculated that by removing a single strawberry from salads served in first class on domestic routes, it would save $210,000 a year.” It’s easy imagine that creativity and taste will be undermined in various circumstances for the sake of profit in the competitive airline field.
Meanwhile, most of us are mourning the loss of complimentary honey-roasted peanuts.