Great food at 35,000 feet is a final frontier for the master chefs of
Down Texas Highway 161 from the ring of glass terminals at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is a cluster of innocuous corporate office parks. Past the guard’s office in one of these buildings, and through three badge-keyed doors, lies a conference room. In the center of the conference table, which is littered with laptops and porcelain coffee cups, is the subject of consternation, knitting brows around the room: a single serving of peach crumble, presented in a bone-china bowl.
A beat of silence stills the room. And then George McNeill, an affable Scotsman who rose from burner jockey to noted chef to overseer of culinary operations for The Ritz-Carlton, lays a verdict on the homey concoction, which will find its way to all first- and business-class passengers on transatlantic Lufthansa flights in the coming months as the final course in one of the new seasonal menus. “It’s leading with too much cinnamon flavor — it overpowers the peach. And you need peach purée to bind it, intensify it. Make it again.” Another dish of crumble shortly arrives at the table. McNeill takes a bite and raises his spoon like a conductor’s baton. “Raise the temperature of the crumble so it will be crunchier, and crystallize on a higher level to balance all the elements. Gotta make it again.”
McNeill and a team of Ritz-Carlton and Lufthansa representatives will taste more than 80 dishes today, scrutinizing every vinaigrette and curl of shrimp. Think running a five-star kitchen on the ground is hard? Try making 50,000 five-star meals a month destined for the sky. It’s a colossal challenge. Flavors change up in the air, and the recipes need to be adapted mathematically by an expert who understands, for example, the formula for how lemon gains strength high up in the atmosphere. How to make a menu sing above the clouds is the expertise of Lufthansa executive chef Bernd Schmitt, who translates flavors as they exist on the ground into their high-altitude incarnations. This week, Schmitt, several Ritz-Carlton chefs, the airline kitchen chefs and the Lufthansa executives have gathered for a grueling session of top-secret development, testing and tasting, which will result in a year’s worth of seasonal cuisine destined for the sky. .
How food tastes high above the Earth is a subject of study for Munich’s Fraunhofer Institute, where research provides Schmitt his mathematical formula. The institute fills an aircraft with customers, and pressurizes and depressurizes the cabin while serving dish after dish with altered cinnamon, herbs, vinegar and so on. Consider a chive sauce: Prepared as it would be on the ground, in the air one couldn’t taste the chives and would taste triple the lemon. Salt has half the taste in the air; sugar is more potent.
But first every sauce and dessert must work on the ground. Tensions are running high in the LSG Sky Chefs’ kitchen — “the Hollywood of airline kitchens” — just off the conference room, where recipes from coach to first class are developed for a wide range of airlines. On a counter, frisée and bok choy lie beside a box of shrink-wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer Danishes; a shelf separates the Sysco cranberry sauce from the truffle oil like the curtain between coach and business class. At a stainless-steel island in the middle of the massive space, the team of chefs hovers over a binder filled with precisely measured recipes and photographs of elaborately plated dishes snapped in The Ritz-Carlton, Denver kitchen. That’s where executive chef Andrés Jiménez held court until his recent move to The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.
Jiménez dreamed up more than 75 recipes as possible inclusions in the menu he has imagined for the airline; about 45 will make the cut for the Lufthansa flights. Jiménez dips a plastic spoon into a bowl and tastes a sage beurre blanc prepared by the chefs before him. “It’s a little salty,” he remarks. The recipes in his binder need to ensure that a staff of 10,000 can carry out what a chef would supervise and finish off personally in his own kitchen. “You may have heard that chefs have a reputation for being controlling,” Jiménez says, his dark eyes glittering with levity, “so talk about a leap of faith.”
No kidding. Consider Jiménez’s grilled watermelon with goat cheese cream and toasted pistachio nuts. In his Denver kitchen, the chef cooked the melon on a grill that heats up to 1,400 degrees for the perfect sear. Airline kitchens have no such grill. Then there’s the question of what happens to the melon when it goes through the process of flight. It turns out that in the air, the fruit releases its water. The team tried different ripenesses, laid the melon slices on paper, and finally learned that the natural sugars needed to be caramelized to make the dish work up above.
The airline chefs carry out 5-by-5-inch foil trays of each dish, just as they would be stored for flight, to meet the judgment of Jiménez’s palate, correcting seasonings before the dishes are plated and brought out to the conference room for their final verdict. Some will be adjusted, like the grilled watermelon; some will be rejected outright. And here is where Schmitt comes in, applying mathematical formulas to each recipe from behind a pair of rectangular spectacles. (Indeed, when the TV show “Iron Chef” ran its own airline-food challenge, he was the chef they called.) The team signs off on the menu, and Schmitt sets about reinterpreting it. That peach crumble will go through many incarnations today only to be radically altered for flight.
“Admit it, flying 30,000 feet in the air in a cigar-shaped box isn’t natural. Food becomes our Valium, our Xanax, our comfort,” Schmitt says, as a chef cracks open a pomegranate and another frenches a chicken quarter. For Costa Rica–born Jiménez, there is no purer comfort food than rice and beans, which he includes on his menu to accompany a beef tenderloin. A chef hands him a dish to taste constructed from his recipe.
“It needs more beans, more — hey, where are you from?” he asks William Abenar, an airline chef who flew in from his base in Los Angeles, and the only other Latino in the room. “Salvador,” Abenar says, picking up a spoon, understanding why Jiménez is asking. He takes a bite. “We do it a little more brown — it needs more juice,” he says, nodding slowly.
“Right?” exclaims Jiménez, his eyes shining. “You’ve got to pulse the plantains more. See if there’s any tamarind in the pantry.” Schmitt is attacking the recipe in the binder with a red pen, making the page bleed like a rare steak. For all the research, all the team evaluations, nothing could be less laboratorial than the spoons and critiques flying around the dish, trying to make what is bound for the air taste like home.