Delta, other airlines take in-flight meals upscale

Airline meals used to be the butt of jokes — at least until they were eliminated on most domestic flights in coach class.

Now, carriers including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines are bringing coach meals back on certain long domestic routes, partnering with well-known chefs for international business class dishes and using designer tableware in first class.

Some foreign carriers like Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Turkish Airlines have long out-performed domestic carriers when it comes to culinary offerings.

U.S. airlines “are catching up to what’s been happening in the world for a long time,” said Jason Kessler, Los Angeles-based editor of

But the latest twists in airborne eats also highlight a deep divide in the sky: While high-spending travelers in business class on some airlines are dining on upscale meals, others are squeezing into tighter seats on ultra low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier with no free snacks or soft drinks, or settling for basic economy on Delta with no advance seat assignments and less flexibility.

Folks up front generate a heaping portion of revenue through higher fares and repeat business, so airlines put the priority on impressing them with new menus.

At Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins’ Eugene Kitchen in Buckhead, the staff readies food for Delta’s business class passengers to Europe in the same kitchen where they bake bread and prep food for Hopkins’ restaurants.

The chef is known for his Southern farm-to-table restaurant Restaurant Eugene and for H&F burgers, the cult favorite started at his Holeman and Finch Public House that spread to the Braves stadium and Ponce City Market.

With Delta, “we’re servicing nine hundred guests a day,” Eugene Kitchen executive chef Nick McCormick said. That makes up more than half of what his staff produces. The food is cooked and prepared throughout the day in the 5,500-foot kitchen, then chilled in a giant refrigerator overnight, loaded up into trucks in the morning and taken to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by 8 a.m.

“I will never be the cheapest food,” said Hopkins, who estimated each Delta meal might cost him $15 to $25 to produce. “Guests don’t know how much goes into delivering good food.”

Hopkins was a good fit for Delta, according to Lisa Bauer, the airline’s vice president of onboard services. Hopkins joined Delta’s culinary team in 2013, after he won a Food & Wine “cabin pressure cook-off” competition against other chefs.

Travelers “want good, recognizable food done really well,” Bauer said. “They don’t like the airlines to be too out there. They really want something they can recognize.”

Menus are redone quarterly to adjust for the season, with Hopkins’ summer menu for Delta featuring dishes with Georgia-produced ingredients, including Storico Fresco spring smoked eggplant ravioli and G&R Farms cream of Vidalia onion soup. The pressurization of the cabin and dehydration call for better sauces to get the full effect on taste buds, Hopkins said.

Airlines in agribiz

To get enough Georgia shrimp or Vidalia onions to supply an airline, “you gotta just build partnerships,” Hopkins said. “If you’re in the business of food and beverage — Delta is in a big way — you actually are in the agriculture business.”

He sees Delta’s huge scale as a way to help local artisans and producers grow.

In the coastal Georgia towns of Valona and Darien, “we have a shrimp economy that’s hurting, because it’s not the cheapest shrimp in the world,” Hopkins said. “The choices on food and beverage have just profound impacts on the hard-working people of America.”

Delta has a similar partnership with Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, known for Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern and other restaurants. In June, the airline announced a deal with Jon & Vinny in Los Angeles, which has created a commissary near LAX to prepare and cook food for Delta passengers.

“We are doing unique things with partner chefs,” Bauer said. “They truly are cooking the food, which is very different from the traditional airline model” with celebrity chefs mainly acting as consultants for menu development.

Coach passengers don’t share in the celebrity chef eats, but Delta has renewed main-cabin meal service on some routes including 12 transcontinental flights out of New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Seattle.

“All of a sudden passengers are actually getting free meals again, which is not something were used to,” said Kessler. For a long time, U.S. airlines “really made every piece of the flying experience a la carte. And then we’ve slowly been seeing it come back.”

The airline in late June began offering 18 different dishes, across breakfast, lunch and dinner. Among the complimentary meals on those routes are a pastrami sandwich and a sesame noodle salad

Legacy thinking

“The challenge is for folks that haven’t flown in a while, or haven’t had the experience, probably still have that legacy thinking” of bad airplane food, Bauer said. The idea, she said, is to “have people get off the plane and say, ‘Wow, you won’t believe those meatballs I had today.’”

Much of the food is prepared at an airline catering kitchen like the massive Gate Gourmet facility at Hartsfield-Jackson, which also assembles the Eugene Kitchen dishes based on a demo plate prepared by Hopkins’ staff. Around the world, Delta uses about 160 kitchens run by Gate Gourmet or LSG Sky Chefs.

But can airline meals really make a difference when travelers choose which airline to fly?

“I don’t know that anyone is choosing their airline based on the food on board,” Kessler said. “Great food on board is a really great perk that can get people to come back to an airline, but when you’re just looking at different tickets and different carriers, I think people generally just choose the lowest fare.”

He said airlines “need to prove themselves to the customers again. The more customers can taste what is offered today, the more they will realize that it’s nothing like the airline meals they remember.”

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