This Isn't Your Father's Airline Food

Ask anyone what they think of airline food and you'll likely get some scoffs, eye rolling, even gagging gestures. Maybe someone will sarcastically say, "What airline food? Most airlines don't have peanuts or pretzels these days, much less actual, good food."

Delta Airlines is aware of this. And after a rough few years, the company is doing something about it. The Atlanta-based airline emerged from bankruptcy last year with a new attitude. It changed everything from the logo on its planes to the seating and amenities inside cabins. That includes bringing in celebrity chefs to create upgraded meals – meals the airline likes to call gourmet.

Coach customers must pay a few bucks for a handful of meals Chef Todd English has created, like a breakfast wrap or a California salad. But first- and business-class customers now get entrees from Chef Michelle Bernstein included with the price of their tickets.

Robin Klein, Delta's general manager of international premium products, says improving on-board food is part of the once-struggling company's new strategy to give customers the very best.

Airlines have always battled for the business traveler, who often pays higher fares than leisure customers. Recently that fight has intensified with a push for even more lavish amenities and services at the front of the plane. International routes — the most profitable — have become the focus of a particularly fierce competition among the airlines.

Delta and other airlines have worked to improve their on-board food offerings.

"We realize the whole industry went through some bad times. But going forward we want to invest in our customer," Klein said.

While these are "nice" perks for passengers, Air Travelers Association president David Stempler said that perks alone usually do not determine purchasing decisions. "It's not going to make a passenger choose between Delta, American or United," said Stempler. "That's usually based on price."

Still, like Delta, other airlines are trying gourmet cuisine from celebrity chefs.

Chef Govind Armstrong of Table 8 in Miami Beach and Los Angeles whips up meals for Air New Zealand. American Airlines serves up Dallas chef and restaurateur Stephan Pyles's creations. Other top chefs like London's Gordon Ramsay and New York's Alfred Portale offer up dish ideas to Singapore Airlines straight from their restaurant kitchens.

Delta's menu possibilities go through several taste tests before executives choose the final appetizers and entrees. And the menus change seasonally. Bernstein's spring menu, featuring freshly prepared dishes like seared filet of beef with sauce au poivre or lamb in pomegranate sauce, comes out next month.

Executives were recently in Miami at Bernstein's restaurant, Michy's, to test summer menu possibilities.

These included duck, salmon and "big, fat, juicy steaks" prepared in different ways. The executives who do the taste-testing know what they're looking for. There's a reason airline food has traditionally been so terrible. It's not as easy as you'd think to cook delicious, quality airline food.

"Up in the air your taste buds mute. So flavors that taste flavorful on the ground might not do so up in the air," Klein said. "So we look for things that have robust flavor, have spice, herbs that really punch on the ground and those are the ones that tend to do the best in the air."

Bernstein chooses her recipes based on what's seasonal and what flavors inspire her when the taste-testings near. But she says that she must also consider the way food is stored and prepped to serve in the air. For instance, to keep the food from drying out she likes prepping dishes in sauce, so they stay moist as they're reheated in the air.

"Listen, we're trying to make it the best that we can. It's airline food," Bernstein said. "Things are refrigerated for a couple of hours before they go on board. It's not going be like cooking, you know, at home for your family or coming in to a restaurant where everything's made a-la-minute. But it's going to be the best airline food I or they will ever put out. We're really trying hard to make it great."

From the ooh's, mmm's and ahh's escaping the taste-testers' mouths, it sounds like she's achieved that.

The judges pool their choices from the 24 appetizers and entrees sampled at Michy's. They taste them again and again in Atlanta at Delta's test kitchens before coming up with the final menu. To add to the experience, Delta is pushing to provide its customers with a sommelier to suggest wine combinations for each entree.

Bernstein says it's hard for her to eat and enjoy her own food. It's a quirk akin to great actors saying they can't stand to watch themselves on screen. But she says in the few months since Delta has been serving up her creations, many passengers have sought her out at her restaurant.

They enjoyed the "airline" food so much they just had to see what she could do on the ground. She smiles and says she's enjoying the relationship and the challenge with Delta.

"It's such a huge corporation that you would think they would do everything really by the book and everything, you know, very clearly corporately done, which I hate. And it wasn't like that at all. It was really about creativity and letting me do what I want to do."