The key for these chefs, celebrity or otherwise, is finding a way to deal with the unique challenges of airport dining: the high volume, the small operational spaces and the daily rush-rush panic of feeding people quickly before their planes leave the tarmac. “We had to work with these guys on how can you get a high-quality meal in a short amount of time,” says Johnson. “They were challenged by this.”
Airports are also embracing technology to bring passengers food in a more timely manner. About a month ago, HMSHost launched a pilot program at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where the company introduced Presto tablets to Taberna del Tequila in Terminal 4. The tablets allow diners to browse through the menu, order their own food and even pay their check without waiting for their waiter to finally put down his smartphone. Similarly, HMSHost has rolled out its B4 You Board mobile app in five airports nationwide; the technology allows travelers to order meals from select HMSHost-run restaurants in the airport and have the food delivered fresh at the gate.
The technologies, Johnson says, give travelers a small sense of control in a captive airport environment in which all sorts of unpredictable things can happen, from delayed flights to long TSA lines.
Airlines may face stiffer competition from their on-ground counterparts, but they aren’t completely giving up on food service, at least not in first-class or “premium” seats where the meals are usually included in the price of the ticket. In fact, like restaurants inside airports, airlines are aligning themselves with celebrity chefs. American Airlines has just recruited Mexican chef Richard Sandoval to develop premium-class entrees such as halibut with truffle corn salsa and lemongrass-marinated chicken breast. Likewise, United Airlines has assembled a “Congress of Chefs,” including notables such as Bryan Caswell and Roy Yamaguchi, to help create recipes for its premium-cabin customers. United even employs a master sommelier, Doug Frost, to select wines.
And yet if you look at customer surveys, it’s often the foreign air carriers, such as Turkish Airlines or Singapore Airlines, that earn the highest marks for food. Air France, as you might suspect, is among the top airlines in terms of food quality. That’s not by accident. The airline has employed some of the finest chefs in France for special occasions and/or regular duties. Among them: Alain Ducasse, Guy Martin and Antoine Westermann. In fact, Joel Robuchon presides over Servair’s Culinary Studio, a collection of star chefs who help develop recipes and ideas for Air France’s premium-cabin passengers. The process of moving from celebrity-chef recipe to actual airline dish can be cumbersome, says Michel Quissac, corporate chef for Air France’s catering division, given the many limitations of onboard cuisine.
“Once the recipes are chosen, we work to adapt the dish to our specific constraints to find the best balance between the recipe devised by the chef and the reality of our processes,” notes Quissac. “We then carry out in-flight tests and make the necessary corrections until the recipe is consistent with the chef’s original idea. A few years ago, we tested recipes up to 18 times. Today, we finalize the recipe with an average of four trial runs.”
That, in short, is a recipe for creating memorable food, whether on the ground or 35,000 feet in the air.