High-Flying Fine Dining: Airline Chef Partnerships
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While it seems like most airline food is getting worse and worse these days — and to add insult to injury, you sometimes even have to pay for it! — some airlines are actually pulling out all the stops to keep their premium customers happy. Today, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen rounds up a who’s who of celebrity chefs who have been hired to satisfy the appetites of high-flyers.
Singapore Airlines first class is among the best premium products in the skies. That’s partly thanks to those ultra-spacious private suites on the airline’s A380s, but first class also comes with food menus created by the airline’s “culinary panel” of celebrity chefs. Currently, that panel includes Alfred Portale of Gotham in New York, Georges Blanc from Vonnas in France, Sam Leong (formerly of Singapore’s Tung Lok restaurant group) and Suzanne Goin from Los Angeles, whose restaurants include A.O.C. and Lucques.
Before their flight, first- and business-class passengers can take advantage of the airline’s “Book the Cook” service and pre-order from a menu of more than 60 dishes. You can find the current list of menu options for each destination here, but to give you an idea, some of your choices flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo might include pan-seared pheasant with stuffed blini and vegetables, crabmeat ee-fu noodle soup with Chinese greens or Atlantic salmon fillet with shrimp and garlic sauce and ratatouille.
Want to try some of these dishes for yourself? You need Singapore’s own KrisFlyer miles to book first-class awards on the airline, but can use partner miles from other carriers such as United, Aeroplan and ANA for business class. Luckily, the KrisFlyer program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, so you’ve got a lot of options. A one-way award from LA to Tokyo will require 74,375 miles, and one-way from New York JFK to Frankfurt requires 57,375 miles.
Air France started an innovative program in December 2011 where, every few months, the airline brings on a noted chef to design a new dish for the business-class and first-class menus on its long-haul international flights. Previous luminaries who signed on included Joël Robuchon, Guy Martin, Michel Roth and Thibaut Ruggeri.
The most recent cook to hop on board was triple Michelin-starred Régis Marcon, who designed one of the four main dishes available in business class on flights departing Paris, and several à la carte options for first class. Among them are free-range chicken with black morels and brill and shrimp with chanterelles. The airline’s wine list changes every two months in first class as well, so there’s likely a nice surprise for the oenophiles on each new flight. Oh yeah, and the airline’s first-class lounge menu was created by another chef you might have heard of: Alain Ducasse — no biggie.
Pretty much the only way to book Air France La Première is with Flying Blue miles. The program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. If you want to fly business, your best bets are Flying Blue miles, or those of Alaska or Delta’s mileage programs. From the US to France in business, both will charge you 62,500 miles each way.
Australia’s largest airline hired celebrity chef Neil Perry, whose restaurant Rockpool helped put Aussie cuisine on the map back in 1997. Their partnership is still going strong, with Perry designing the menus not only on board, but also in the airline’s lounges.
Business and first-class passengers can pre-order their meal within their reservation between seven days and 12 hours in advance of flying. First-class passengers have a choice of 12 main courses, or the option of an eight-course tasting menu — hey, it’s a long flight to Australia. Some recent menu items have included spanner crab and harissa tartlet and a chocolate-orange pot de crème with almond biscuits. The business-class meals aren’t quite as sumptuous, but they do include three courses: a starter, main and dessert.
If you want to try the menus for yourself, you need 62,500 American Airlines miles each way from LA to Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney in business class, and 72,500 each way in first class.
Qatar Airways launched its innovative Culinary World Menu panel with four celebrity chefs back in 2012, but that has been winnowed down to two: Nobu Matsuhisa of the eponymous restaurant chain, Nobu, and India’s two Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia.
Among the items you might find on the airline’s menus for first and business class are thyme-roasted chicken supreme with potato gnocchi and seared tomatoes, oven-roasted mustard-dill salmon with dill pine nut rice and a banana-caramel tart. Wash it down with a 2007 Chassagne-Montrachet, or a 2003 Castel Giocondo Brunello di Montalcino from the current wine list. You can find some sample menus here.
Qatar is a member of Oneworld, so you can use your American Airlines miles to fly the airline. It’ll cost you 90,000 miles each way in first class from the US to Doha.
JAL’s premium dining program is inexplicably called JAL BEDD SKY AUBERGE, but despite the confusing name, it offers an impressive selection of first and business-class menu items from Japanese celebrity chefs, available on its long-haul international flights
The airline switches up these menus quarterly, and the current spring menu comes courtesy of JAL’s corporate chef, Naoki Uchiyama, as well as other leading figures in the Japanese dining scene such as Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin, Koji Shimomura of Edition Koji Shimomura, Chikara Yamada of Yamada Chikara, Fumiko Kono, Shinichi Sato of Passage 53 and Hiroki Yshitake of SOLA.
On the current list from Los Angeles to Tokyo-Narita, you might find small kozara starters such as grilled sea bream with sakura and green pea sauce, US prime beef fillet with black truffle sauce and chocolate mousse with caramelized bananas. Check out all your options here.
Your best bet for booking an award on JAL using miles is using your American AAdvantage account. One-way business class from North America to Tokyo is 50,000 miles, and 67,500 for first class, though availability has been scarce lately, with one recent exception.
South African Airways
Chef Reuben Riffel is probably South Africa’s leading culinary figure, with four restaurants to his name. This is even more extraordinary, considering Riffel didn’t even eat in a restaurant until he was 15 years old because of apartheid. Travelers on South African Airways can get a taste of his cuisine before even setting foot in the country, since he oversees the airline’s business-class menus, alongside Masterchef SA Judge and Tsongo Sun Executive Chef Benny Masekwameng.
Together, the latter two have created rotating gourmet menus that recently included salmon tartare with wasabi paste and red caviar on cucumber cups as well as grilled prawn skewers on saffron rice with grilled pepper, baby corn and chili-lemon butter.
SAA flies to Johannesburg from Washington Dulles and New York JFK. Its major US partner is United Airlines, which requires 80,000 miles for business class each way between North America and South Africa. United is a 1:1 instant transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.
I’m including United not because it has an actual celebrity chef on their roster, but because the airline recently made news by announcing a new partnership with The Trotter Project. Late Chicago-based chef Charlie Trotter helped create some of the airline’s menus from 2007-2010; he passed away in 2013, but some of the other chefs who trained in his kitchen, as well as “culinary supporters,” are partnering with United to rethink its menus.
The first “menu development” session was held in March 2015 and focused on the airline’s transcon service between LA and New York, with more presumably to come. Among the participating chefs are David LeFevre of Manhattan Beach Post in LA, Mitchell Nordby of Parallel 37 in San Francisco, Top Chef contender Richie Farina, Christian Ramos of Virginia’s in New York and a smattering of others who are collaborating on the Bistro on Board menu. Check out all the details here, and stay tuned for new menus on board.
Chef Heston Blumenthal is arguably Britain’s most famous chef, so it’s no wonder BA tapped him to overhaul its premium menus back in 2012 (also coinciding with the London Olympics) and to introduce an “umami,” or savory, factor to its meals.
The chef doesn’t seem to be as hands-on today, but hopefully his legacy is still apparent in business and first-class menu items such as mint, dill and lemon-cured Shetland salmon gravlax with vegetable caviar, lemon Cornish sole with saffron and pine nut sauce, vegetable tajin and couscous and a summer pudding with mascarpone cheese.
British Airways is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex, Chase and SPG, though due to a recent Avios mileage program devaluation, you might want to use your American Airlines miles to fly the airline instead.
LA culinary heavyweight Joachim Splichal of Patina Restaurant Group was wooed and won by ANA late in 2014 to create new business-class menus for the Japanese airline’s LA passengers. The year-long collaboration has so far produced daytime dishes like a “Tower of Tuna” with soya onions, avocado, tomato, yuzu and olive oil, as well as a breakfast dish of organic scrambled eggs on brioche toast with California Hass avocados, applewood-smoked bacon and crispy breakfast potatoes.
The airline has also partnered with the culinary teams at the Regent Singapore, Shangri-La Hotels in China and Hong Kong and the Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel to create new menus for some of its Asia flights.
ANA is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, so you would need just 42,500 miles each way to fly business class to Japan from the US. It’s also Star Alliance partners with United, which requires 75,000 miles in each direction to fly from the US to Japan on a partner in business class.
Believe it or not, Delta was actually ahead of the curve on this trend, bringing on James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s in Miami back in 2007. Since then, she’s been joined by Michael Chiarello (who has designed some of the transcon and transpacific meal options) as well as Atlanta-based chef Linton Hopkins, who takes care of the international premium menus out of Atlanta to South America and Europe. Meanwhile, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group has designed the “dine and rest” options for folks who want to get straight to sleep after a quick, light meal.
Which airline has your favorite meal service … or the meal service you dislike least?