The Brancatelli File



June 17, 1999 -- So did you hear the big news? United Airlines last week hired Jacques Pepin, the chef, author and television personality, to create menus for some of its flights.

This frightens me and I'll tell you why: Every time an airline hires a famous chef, in-flight food gets worse.

Now while I have never had pudding on a plane, I do have proof. United's in-flight food--like the atrocities served on most airlines--is reprehensible. And it is reprehensible even though United already employed a gaggle of "celebrity" chefs before it ever signed Pepin.

Besides a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America, United boasts contributions from Sheila Lukins, the cookbook queen; Martin Yan, the giddy television wokmaster; Sam Choy, whose riffs on "plate lunches" have changed Hawaiian cuisine; Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the self-styled Two Hot Tamales; and even Charlie Trotter, the maniacal wonder chef of the Midwest.

Of course, United's competitors have their own roster of big names in big toques. Singapore Airlines has hired everyone from David Burke of the Park Avenue Café in New York to Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in Kyoto. American Airlines hosts an annual Chef's Conclave that draws the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme and Larry Forgione. Qantas picks up tips from Sydney superchef Neil Perry.

So why, I wonder, is all this bad in-flight food happening to all these good chefs?

For an answer, I checked in with Fred Ferretti, the renowned reporter, food writer and restaurant critic. Best known in foodie circles for his New York Times stories and his Gourmet magazine columns, Ferretti is on the inside now. He's in his second year as a member of Singapore Airlines' World Gourmet Cuisine advisory panel.

"I had been asked for years by airlines to be a consultant, but I always said no because I had no respect for airline food," Ferretti explains. "I thought Singapore was the best carrier in the air. I thought their service was wonderful. But the food was only passable, sometimes awful. But Singapore was earnest in what they were trying to do, generous in the money they were willing to spend on the food and committed to the integrity of the chefs on the advisory panel."

So along with the chefs--Burke; Murata; Georges Blanc, a 3-star Michelin chef; Peter Knipp of Raffles in Singapore; and Dietmar Sawyere of Forty One in Sydney--Ferretti and a Hong Kong food writer named William Mark went about the daunting task of learning about airline food and trying to improve it. There have been many rounds of meetings, tours, flights, menu planning sessions, critiques and memos.

What has Ferretti learned?

"I think airline food can be improved, but you have to have a change of mind," he says. "Airlines have to stop making believe they can offer the same kind of cuisine served in a top-notch restaurant. If anything is the watchword on airplanes, it's 'keep it simple.' "

His friend, David Burke, created "a terrine of salmon and asparagus. It's great because it's cold, it's handsome and it's delicious." But Burke also did a complicated lamb couscous that was "a disaster." Murata came into the sessions expecting to do an intricate Japanese menu. "But now he's concentrating on beautiful cold Japanese dishes," Ferretti says.

"I keep hitting simple, simple, simple. I want to push cold chicken," Ferretti explains.

And that is where the misguided airline mindset comes in, he says. Carriers, including Singapore, continue to expect miracles from elaborate hot meals even though the cramped quarters of an aircraft galley and the daunting conditions of pre-flight preparations make them a dicey proposition.

Airlines are "intent on serving you what appears to be a 'great' meal," Ferretti says. "There's resistance to cold food because they believe the customers won't accept a cold meal as dinner. They have real trouble accepting the logic and the limitations of in-flight food."

The chefs on the Singapore panel have learned to work around at least some of the constraints, Ferretti explains. "Georges Blanc did medallions of veal, truffled mashed potatoes and carrots. He's smart. He kept it simple."

Ferretti has noticed that some hot dishes--soups, rice and noodle meals and casseroles--can survive the rigors of a long-haul flight. "Stews work because you can chill and reheat them and there's a nice, thick sauce," he says. And Singapore always has two wonderful soups going during a flight. What's better than a bowl of soup with a piece of good bread?"

After all the work, Ferretti has noted some successes--"We got French off the menus to reduce the mystery"---and he has hope. One recommendation he's pressing: Require the chefs to follow their menu creations throughout the complete cycle.

"I think a chef has to watch how the caterer is doing his food," Ferretti says. "He has to taste it, adjust the seasonings. Then he has to watch it cooked, chilled, taken to the plane and watch it reheated and served. Smart chefs then will take the process into account and continue to simplify what they are trying to do."

But Ferretti remains a hard-boiled skeptic about food in the skies--and on the ground.

"Cooking on planes remains all hype," he says. "It's all style, no substance. Of course, that is the state of food in general despite our wunderkin chefs."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.