ONE of the world’s busiest airports, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, lies a mere 1,026 feet above sea level. Which, it turns out, is perfect for your taste buds.
At low elevations, the 10,000 or so taste buds in the human mouth work pretty much as nature intended. With an assist from the nose — the sense of smell plays a big role in taste — the familiar quartet of sweet, bitter, sour and salty registers as usual. Tomato juice tastes like tomato juice, turkey Florentine like turkey Florentine.
But step aboard a modern airliner, and the sense of taste loses its bearings. This isn’t simply because much airline food is unappetizing, although that doesn’t help. No, the bigger issue is science — science that airlines now want to turn to their advantage as they vie for lucrative business- and first-class travelers.
Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows. Taste buds are M.I.A. Cotton mouth sets in.
All of which helps explain why, for instance, a lot of tomato juice is consumed on airliners: it tastes far less acidic up in the air than it does down on the ground. It also helps explain why airlines tend to salt and spice food heavily and serve wines that are full-bodied fruit bombs. Without all that extra kick, the food would taste bland. Above the Atlantic, even a decent light Chablis would taste like lemon juice.
“Subtlety is not well served at altitude,” says Andrea Robinson, a sommelier who has selected wines for Delta Air Lines since 2008.
The science of airline food, which Delta, Lufthansa and other airlines have studied assiduously for years, has opened a new front in the battle for passengers in the upper-class cabins. Until recently, airline food seemed in terminal decline — another victim of widespread cost cuts in this long-troubled industry. Industry experts trace the problem back to 1987, when American Airlines removed a single olive from its salads to save a little money.
Anyone who has flown coach in recent years knows what happened next. Catering budgets were cut drastically. Free meals disappeared from cattle class. It might seem hard to believe, but flight attendants once whisked racks of lamb down the aisles on silver trays. Today, they hawk chips and soda.
But after years of belt-tightening, airline executives are investing again to attract business passengers willing to pay a premium for tickets, and food is a big part of that effort. This includes devising new menus and even hiring celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, of “Hell’s Kitchen” fame, to consult. The motivation is obvious: business and first class account for about a third of all airline seats but generate a majority of the revenue. Keeping high-end customers is crucial to the bottom line.
THE industry can’t afford missteps. Airlines suffered mightily as travelers pulled back after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks. In the decade that followed, domestic carriers lost a combined $60 billion as competition intensified and fuel prices rose. For many carriers, bankruptcy was the only option. American Airlines was the most recent major airline to do so, last November.
After so much turbulence, airlines are trying to chart a more profitable course through mergers and a renewed focus on business and first class. Many have installed flat-bed seats on some domestic flights, fancier entertainment systems and Wi-Fi.
But in the kitchen, science is still working against airlines. To crack the taste code, Lufthansa, the German airline, went as far as enlisting the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, a research institute near Munich. Among other things, the airline wanted to know why passengers ordered as much tomato juice as beer — about 423,000 gallons of each annually. The answer was that for many passengers, tomato juice apparently has a different taste in different atmospheric conditions.
“We put a lot of effort in designing perfect meals for our clients, but when we tried them ourselves in the air, the meals would taste like airline food,” says Ingo Buelow, who is in charge of food and beverages at Lufthansa. “We were puzzled.”
So are many other people.
“Ice cream is about the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Airlines have a problem with food on board. The packaging, freezing, drying and storage are hard on flavor at any altitude, let alone 30,000 feet.”
The journey from recipe book to industrial kitchen to a plane in midflight is fraught with peril. It’s not just a culinary feat — it’s also a logistical nightmare. The $13-billion-a-year airline catering industry serves millions of meals daily worldwide. It must maintain supply chains, standards and quality under a variety of local conditions.
“The cooking is the easy part,” says Corey Roberts, a chef based in New York with LSG Sky Chefs, the biggest catering company. “What we have to worry about is the logistics of getting the correct meal on the correct flight, on the right trays, into the right galley, at the right time. It’s a logistical puzzle of juggling all these meals, every day, for hundreds of flights.”
Catering facilities are part restaurants, part industrial production halls where thousands of workers grill, fry, bake, simmer, boil, poach, beat and braise. Food safety standards require all meals to be cooked first on the ground. After that, they are blast-chilled and refrigerated until they can be stacked on carts and loaded on planes.
In 2010, LSG Sky Chefs produced 460 million meals for 300 airlines in 200 flight kitchens in 50 countries. GateGourmet, the No. 2 caterer, served 9,700 daily flights in 28 countries.
Once all the food is aboard, airlines face another hurdle: planes don’t have full kitchens. For safety, open-flame grills and ovens aren’t allowed on commercial aircraft. Flight attendants can’t touch food the way a restaurant chef might in order to prepare a dish. Galley space is cramped, and there’s little time to get creative with presentation.
So attendants must contend with convection ovens that blow hot, dry air over the food. Newer planes have steam ovens, which are better because they help keep food moist. Either way, meals can only be reheated, not cooked, on board.
“Getting any food to taste good on a plane is an elusive goal,” says Steve Gundrum, who runs a company that develops new products for the food industry.
STILL, there was a time not so long ago when airline food could seem very special. Mr. Gundrum recalls, for example, that he had his best airline meal aboard a British Airways Concorde 25 years ago. It was grouse cooked in a wine reduction, accompanied by little roasted potatoes.
Today, airlines want to recreate some of those glory days in their upper-class cabins, with American carriers — trying to bounce back from years of financial cutbacks — aiming to catch up with foreign rivals’ international service.
And some of those foreign carriers have been raising the stakes. The menu at Air France, for instance, includes Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemon grass. The dishes were created by the chef Joël Robuchon, who has collected a total of 27 Michelin stars in his career. The airline’s roster of chefs also includes Guy Martin, the chef at le Grand Véfour, and Jacques Le Divellec, who runs a restaurant that bears his name in Paris.
Air France isn’t alone in reaching out to celebrity chefs. Lufthansa teams with chefs from the luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental to prepare meals for its flights between the United States and Germany. Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, has published a book of in-flight recipes from 10 chefs, including Mr. Ramsay. Its business- and first-class passengers can pick their meals from an online menu 24 hours before takeoff. The airline offers a braised soy-flavored duck with yam rice — a specialty from Singapore — or a seafood thermidor with buttered asparagus, slow-roasted vine-ripened tomatoes and saffron rice.
Korean Air owns a farm where it raises beef and organic grains and vegetables for its in-flight meals, including bibimbap, a Korean classic of rice, sautéed vegetables and chili paste that the airline serves in coach. The farm has more than 1,600 head of cattle and more than 5,000 chickens destined for meals in first class.
And the catering business of Emirates Airlines, in Dubai, handles 90,000 meals a day and bakes its own bread, crumble cake and pecan pie. It also prepares nearly 130 different kinds of menus daily. It offers Japanese and Italian dishes, for instance, and has 12 regional Indian cuisines. Eighteen workers spend their days just making elaborate flower designs out of fruit.
American carriers, while elevating their international food service, have generally shunned such refinements on domestic flights. But Peter Wilander, managing director of onboard services at Delta, wants to bring some glamour back.
Last year, Delta hired Michael Chiarello, a celebrity chef from Napa Valley, to come up with new menus for business-class passengers flying on transcontinental routes — New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. It was not the first time that Delta had worked with a renowned chef. The airline has served meals created by Michelle Bernstein, a Miami chef, since 2006 in its international business class.
“Our chefs are like portrait painters,” Mr. Wilander says. “They can get pretty creative. But we need to translate that into painting by numbers.” That process began last May, when Mr. Chiarello met with executives and catering chefs from Delta at a boxy industrial kitchen on the edge of the San Francisco airport to demonstrate some of his recipes. Among the dozens of dishes he tried were an artichoke and white-bean spread, short ribs with polenta, and a small lasagna of eggplant and goat cheese.
“I am known for making good food, and airlines generally are not,” says Mr. Chiarello, who is also the author of a half-dozen cookbooks, the host for a show on the Food Network, and a former contestant on “Top Chef Masters” and “The Next Iron Chef.” “I probably have a lot more to lose than to gain doing this.”
Huddled around him, white-toqued chefs from Delta and its catering partners weighed each ingredient on a small electronic scale, took scrupulous notes and pictures and tried to calculate how much it would cost to recreate each dish a thousand times a day.
It took Mr. Chiarello six months to come up with the menu. He tested recipes, picked seasonal ingredients, considered textures and colors and looked at ways to present his meals on a small airline tray. Then Delta’s corporate chefs had to learn his way of cooking and serving. Bean counters — the financial kind — priced each item. Executives and frequent fliers were drafted to taste his creations.
There were a lot of questions. How should cherry tomatoes be sliced? (The answer: Leave them whole.) What side should a chicken fillet be grilled on? (Skin first.) How many slices of prosciutto can be used as appetizers? (Two large ones, rather than three, struck the balance between taste and price.)
FOR airlines like Delta, these are not trivial matters. A decision a few years ago to shave one ounce from its steaks, for example, saved the airline $250,000 a year. And every step of kitchen labor increases costs when so many meals are prepared daily. An entrée accounts for about 60 percent of a meal’s cost, according to Delta, while appetizers account for 17 percent, salads 10 percent and desserts 7 percent.
Delta also calculated that by removing a single strawberry from salads served in first class on domestic routes, it would save $210,000 a year. The company hands out 61 million bags of peanuts every year, and about the same number of pretzels. A one-cent increase in peanut prices increases Delta’s costs by $610,000 a year.
Others are catching on. United Airlines said in February that it would upgrade its service to first- and business-class passengers and would change the way it prepares meals “to improve the quality and taste.” It also said it would start offering a new ice cream sundae option with a choice of six toppings on international flights. On domestic flights, premium passengers will get new snacks, including warm cookies.
At Bottega, his high-end restaurant in Yountville, Calif., Mr. Chiarello specializes in modern Italian flavors, with a focus on fresh ingredients and an obsessive attention to detail in the kitchen and in the dining room. His staff is meticulously trained and has an intimate understanding of the dishes and wines served. And Mr. Chiarello is the undisputed boss of his kitchen.
Translating that in an airline setting is arduous. Delta sent some of its flight attendants based in New York to Mr. Chiarello’s Napa restaurant, and organized Webcasts so others could hear him talk about his food. It also introduced new silverware and trays in time for his new three-course meals.
Delta hopes that passengers will come back if they have a good meal. But for chefs like Mr. Chiarello, airline cooking will always pose challenges.
“If I put a sauce on a plate at my restaurant, I bark at the waiters to hold the plate straight so it doesn’t spill,” he says. “But you can’t bark at the pilot to fly the plane straight, right?”