Feed­ing peo­ple at 35K feet is no easy task

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Lau­ren Zum­bach

CHICAGO – United Air­lines tried five dif­fer­ent sausage recipes and 36 pret­zel buns be­fore set­tling on the com­bi­na­tion that made its way to in-flight menus this month: a smoked beef and pork link slathered with South Carolina-style bar­be­cue sauce and roasted onions.

It took more than 200 hours over the course of a year to de­velop the sand­wich, which it cre­ated with the chef at Chicago’s Lil­lie’s Q.

Air­lines know pas­sen­gers aren’t pick­ing flights be­cause they pre­fer one car­rier’s short rib to a ri­val’s ravi­oli. And most coach pas­sen­gers on do­mes­tic flights still have to pay if they want more than a small snack, although com­pli­men­tary meals are avail­able on a hand­ful of the long­est cross-coun­try flights.

But food is a key part of the pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence, and air­lines have been mak­ing in­vest­ments in re­cent years. That in­cludes part­ner­ing with out­side chefs, of­fer­ing more choices and min­ing data on pas­sen­gers’ likes and dis­likes.

Even with changes, don’t ex­pect Miche­lin to start award­ing stars. Feed­ing cus­tomers at 35,000 feet brings chal­lenges ter­res­trial restau­rants don’t have to deal with.

Dishes need to hold up af­ter be­ing chilled and re­heated in flight. Flight attendants, who han­dle fi­nal food prep, are busy and are not chefs. And even gourmet food suf­fers in flight, where low air pres­sure and dry air dull fla­vors.

Cook­ing for an air­line was “dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent,” said Char­lie McKenna, chef and owner of Lil­lie’s Q. “There’s a lot more tech­ni­cal things to man­age.”

Taste isn’t just about what hap­pens in your mouth. Smell mat­ters, too.

Lower cabin air pres­sure means ev­ery breath car­ries fewer of the com­pounds that give food an aroma, and the dry air makes it tougher for your nose to pick up on them, said Charles Spence, a pro­fes­sor of ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy at Oxford Univer­sity.

Stud­ies have also found that peo­ple may not per­ceive sweet­ness and salti­ness as in­tensely when there’s loud back­ground noise like what pas­sen­gers ex­pe­ri­ence in an air­line cabin, he said. But that noise may boost the sa­vory umami taste.

Air­lines used to com­pen­sate by go­ing heavy on the salt, but now they try to add more herbs and spices to bring out fla­vor, said Chris­tian Hal­low­ell, gen­eral man­ager of on-board food and bev­er­age de­sign at Delta Air Lines.

Gerry Gulli, ex­ec­u­tive chef at United, said he might slightly in­crease the amount of salt in a dish but mostly re­lies on mari­nades and rubs that in­fuse fla­vor. United ac­tu­ally di­aled back the heat on its sausage sand­wich com­pared with one on Lil­lie’s Q’s menu be­cause fla­vors also need to have rel­a­tively broad ap­peal.

Pas­sen­gers can still taste the heat, but it won’t leave them jab­bing the call but­ton to sum­mon the bev­er­age cart. It’s served on a pret­zel bun from Chicago’s Labri­ola Bak­ery.

The at­ten­tion ex­tends to bev­er­ages. Sev­eral air­lines em­ploy som­me­liers to se­lect wines serve in-flight, and Delta’s con­ducts tast­ings in the air as well as on the ground.

There’s also the is­sue of tur­bu­lence to deal with, since it can in­ter­rupt food prep and mean meals sit in a con­vec­tion oven longer than planned.

At United, em­ploy­ees “tor­ture test” dishes by de­lib­er­ately leav­ing them in test kitchen ovens too long, Gulli said. Braises and stews tend to be more for­giv­ing than steaks, he said.

Nor is de­li­cious­ness the only fac­tor. At a re­cent Amer­i­can Air­lines taste-test­ing work­shop in Chicago, em­ploy­ees were par­tic­u­larly en­thu­si­as­tic about a new op­tion: shake-to-mix sal­ads with grains like bel­uga lentils, farro or quinoa, served in clear plas­tic jars.

Be­fore any­one dug in with a fork, they tested whether the shak­able con­cept worked.

Two of the dress­ings lay­ered at the bot­tom of the jar flunked: When chilled, they thick­ened and stayed glued to the bot­tom of the jar.

And while peo­ple liked the taste of pick­led onions in one salad, their pur­ple color rubbed off on the chicken, prompt­ing fears pas­sen­gers would think the meat was un­der­cooked.

Most menu devel­op­ment work­shops like Amer­i­can’s in­clude flight attendants, who are ex­perts on whether a dish will be easy to cook and serve on board. Flight attendants also tend to have a pulse on pas­sen­gers’ tastes.

“They’re good at see­ing, ‘Are the plates com­ing back empty or not?’” said Raphael Gi­rar­doni, Amer­i­can’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of food and bev­er­age ser­vices.

Air­lines are also look­ing to hard num­bers. Last year, Amer­i­can and Delta be­gan track­ing cus­tomers’ rat­ings of spe­cific meals, at least in busi­ness and first-class cab­ins.

Amer­i­can has been serv­ing more short rib since find­ing pas­sen­gers rated those meals sig­nif­i­cantly higher than sim­i­lar dishes fea­tur­ing beef filet, Gi­rar­doni said. Filet sounds fancier, but short rib trav­els bet­ter.

United and Amer­i­can said trav­el­ers tend to like fa­mil­iar foods that air­lines can con­sis­tently pre­pare well. While pas­sen­gers say they want fresh, healthy choices, that’s not usu­ally what sells best.

United’s most pop­u­lar item avail­able for pur­chase is a cheese­burger, and Amer­i­can’s pas­sen­gers fa­vor “el­e­vated com­fort food,” like short rib with chili mac­a­roni and cheese and hari­cots verts, Gi­rar­doni said.

Still, he thinks de­mand for healthy op­tions is grow­ing. Amer­i­can has been of­fer­ing a veg­e­tar­ian meal op­tion that can be made ve­gan on cross-coun­try flights since last fall. It’s also part of the rea­son Amer­i­can part­nered with a Texas-based chain of Mediter­ranean restau­rants, Zoes Kitchen, to de­sign menu items sold on do­mes­tic flights.

Part­ner­ships be­tween air­lines and restau­rants are noth­ing new. United worked with Trader Vic’s, cred­ited with in­vent­ing the mai tai, back in the 1970s. But where chefs once de­vel­oped recipes and left the cook­ing to air­line cater­ing kitchens, they’re now sup­ply­ing more in­gre­di­ents as well, said Brian Berry, Delta’s di­rec­tor of on-board ser­vices strate­gic plan­ning.

Lil­lie’s Q, for in­stance, pro­vides the sausages and bar­be­cue sauce for United’s sand­wiches, which helps the air­line keep the dish con­sis­tent across dif­fer­ent kitchens at dif­fer­ent air­ports.

Tasty air­line food doesn’t have to be an oxy­moron. Gary Leff, a travel ex­pert who writes the View from the Wing blog, said he’s en­coun­tered a hand­ful of meals he’d hap­pily en­joy again on the ground.

Delta says it’s aim­ing for some­thing more like a “restau­ran­tqual­ity ex­pe­ri­ence” even in coach on in­ter­na­tional flights. Start­ing in Novem­ber, cus­tomers on flights longer than six and a half hours will be greeted by flight attendants car­ry­ing trays of Belli­nis.

Pas­sen­gers will also get to choose be­tween two ap­pe­tiz­ers and dessert will be served as a sep­a­rate course.

On do­mes­tic flights, Delta and Amer­i­can have brought back com­pli­men­tary meals in coach on a hand­ful of the long­est cross­coun­try flights. United is also test­ing free meals in econ­omy on a hand­ful of flights to and from Hawaii.

AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Chef Char­lie McKenna and his new sausage sand­wich de­vel­oped with United Air­lines at Lille's Q in Chicago. The sand­wich fea­tures smoked beef and pork sausage and Lil­lie's Q South Carolina-style gold bar­be­cue sauce with roasted onions on a pret­zel bun.

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