From soup to nuts: Behind the scenes of how Delta’s inflight meals are prepared
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Airplane food gets a bad rap. But, if Delta’s latest culinary innovations are as good in the air as they are in the kitchen, then that may be about to change.
For nearly a decade, the carrier has partnered with New York-based Union Square Events to provide elevated inflight meals for business-class passengers on premium transcontinental flights departing from JFK.
Now, the the partnership is set to grow stronger. With it, Delta hopes to bring farm-to-(tray)table cuisine to more passengers on its New York departures.
Union Square Events already caters all of Delta’s domestic first-class meals for New York flights, in addition to the premium routes to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But, that’s not all.
The caterer just moved into a brand-new commissary in Brooklyn’s Industry City, which the company outfitted with the latest kitchen technology. The goal: to make your inflight meal even tastier than before.
Delta and Union Square Events invited TPG for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the new commissary, giving us a look at how your meal gets from the drawing board to your tray table.
Grab a snack and read on, because you might be hungry by the time you finish reading.
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Our tour began in the corner conference room on the fourth floor of a nondescript building on 41st Street in Brooklyn.
On a sunny day, you’d see the Lower Manhattan skyline, along with the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey from the windows.
But during our tour, no one paid attention to what was outside — and not just because it was a gloomy morning.
Instead, the conference table was arranged in a horseshoe, giving every meeting participant an unobstructed view of the research and development kitchen located at the front of the room.
This is where the magic begins, Dan Dilworth, Vice President of culinary operations for Union Square Events (USE) told TPG during our tour.
Every meal that USE caters for Delta is first cooked up in this kitchen. This is where the Delta team meets with the caterer to discuss new menu items, food trends and more.
The R&D kitchen is stocked with all the latest appliances, along with Delta cutlery and china — and even a working galley cart — as the meals are “pressure tested” until the caterer gets it right. This includes seeing how the trays stack on top of each other to make sure they get the perfect geometric configuration.
The Delta menus are planned at least six months in advance, said Michael Henny, Delta’s managing director of onboard service operations. As the team thinks through different meal options, there are a number of factors to consider.
For one, many of the decisions are rooted in historical data on meal preferences collected from hundreds of thousands of flights. The team also listens to post-flight feedback on the culinary experience, and it collects opinions from the flight crew, who often have the opportunity to try the food during breaks on long-haul flights.
Of course, the team also considers how the food will taste at high altitudes where taste buds are suppressed.
For this, the Delta team leans on the deep culinary experience from Brett Romberg, who leads the charge on developing Delta’s inflight menus.
Traditionally, airlines have relied on copious amounts of salt to compensate for the taste difference at altitude.
But Union Square Events says it’s trying to bring a more elevated approach — making a concerted effort to include different relishes and garnishes that it knows will work well at altitude as part of its effort to bring out the natural flavor of its food.
After an evaluation session, several top picks are chosen and then created in the kitchen. The team tastes the different dishes and picks a few for each seasonal rotation.
Once both the Delta and USE teams are satisfied, the recipes are finalized — and your inflight meal is one step closer to the tray table.
The next step — and perhaps the hardest one during the pandemic — is sourcing the ingredients. (Dilworth was especially proud that the commissary never ran out of cream cheese during the recent nationwide shortage.)
Union Square Events prides itself on delivering locally-sourced meals, and that’s especially true for its Delta partnership.
Case in point: the side salad included with the lunch and dinner tray. While some airline caterers may work with major industrial farms located hundreds of miles away, Union Square Events is practically sourcing lettuce from its backyard.
No, not from the concrete on the ground — but rather, from Gotham Greens, a New York-based urban agriculture farm that is building greenhouses on top of the city’s buildings. The heads of lettuce and basil leaves that were going into the salad when I visited were harvested just six blocks away.
“Fresher is better” is the catchphrase that Dilworth is using when crafting the inflight meals. His reasoning? The fresher the ingredients, the better they’ll taste at altitude.
But it isn’t just about sourcing local ingredients — it’s also about serving fresh food.
To that end, Union Square Events executives say they’re proud that most lunch and dinner trays served on Delta flights are produced the same morning.
The preparation process begins at 7 a.m. when the kitchen opens. By midday, there’s already a truckload of meals on its way to LaGuardia and JFK, many of which will be served the same day.
But how exactly are the meals prepared? Well, that’s next.
Prep, cook and package
Union Square Events recently moved into a brand-new 70,000-square-foot commissary, which features the “Cadillac” of catering kitchens, according to Dilworth.
The kitchen was purpose-designed for the culinary operation, both for Delta and for the company’s other clients, which include the Whitney Museum, Citi Field and more.
The Delta operation begins in one of the kitchen’s three walk-ins, where the raw ingredients are stocked almost exactly as you’d find them in a grocery store. The dairy products are in the first aisle, followed by the produce and so on.
After the ingredients are gathered, they enter a prep area, which is where the chopping and dicing happens, as seen below by chef de cuisine, Ashley Nathan.
While some caterers stock pre-cut fruits and vegetables, the “fresher is better” philosophy dictates that Union Square Events processes all its produce in-house (with the help of some serious chopping machinery).
There’s even a dedicated temperature-controlled prep room for meats and poultry. The remainder of the foods are prepared at room temperature.
The cooking happens in industrial-size ovens, pots and fryers. The skillet used to prepare the Chocolate babka French toast could easily hold at least 40 pieces at a time.
My favorite appliance, however, is the rotating oven, which is used to evenly cook hundred of pieces of olive oil focaccia at a time. Fans of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos on YouTube would be a kick out of this appliance.
After cooking, each element of the meal is then portioned into small containers. For the Moroccan chicken stew, this includes individual paper cups for the stew itself, along with a cup of harissa couscous and a cup of greens.
These cups are then placed in a holding area on racks, where they await final packaging.
The last step is to get the meals into individually-sealed foil containers, ready for placement in the galley cart and heat in the aircraft oven.
Each meal is assembled and labeled by hand, before being placed on a rack of packing sheets — which is a new sustainable way of shipping that eliminates the use of paper-lined boxes.
These packing sheets are then driven to the nearby airports, where they’re processed by the on-site caterer, placed in galley carts and stocked on the aircraft.
Much of the work is already complete.
When it’s time to eat, flight attendants just need to heat up the meals in foil-wrapped containers.
Within minutes, they’ll be at your tray table — in some cases just hours after being whipped up in the Union Square Events kitchen.
When you’re enjoying your next inflight Delta meal, the teams on the ground are already thinking about what’s next.
For one, the airline has been working to expand its popular pre-select meal option program, which it hopes to continue rolling out to more flights.
Between 30% and 50% of travelers pre-order their meals on any given flight, according to Henny, who says this program has proven to be a major success for Delta and Union Square Events.
For one, it allows the airline to pilot new menu items before they potentially appear as one of the three main inflight choices.
Additionally, preordering your meal provides Delta with more insight into popular meal options, as well as more direct feedback, as the airline can link your survey responses with the meal choice you preordered.
Further, the airline is working to create crew training for inflight meals across its bases to get flight attendants jazzed up about the new culinary partnership.
Henny wants the airline’s crew to be able to answer “what’s the best option” with a confident, well-researched answer.
But above all else, Delta and Union Square Events say they aren’t just focused on providing industry-leading inflight meals.
Sure, that’s the business component of their relationship, but the two companies are thinking about what’s next for the decade-long partnership.
“We have a wonderful cultural alignment, and we’ve achieved success together,” said Union Square Events President Anthony Mastellone. Both Delta and USE are focused on “taking care of people, our customers, and taking care of our own employees.”
From the top brass of leaders, both companies are aligned — Delta CEO Ed Bastian recently spoke to Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer both on an external “Gaining Altitude” forum, and for an internal company-wide town hall.
But in the meantime, “we’re doing something more than the transaction,” said Henny. “We pick our partners wisely and we’re proud of who we’re doing business with.”
It’s a shared mission that keeps fueling the Delta and USE partnership, and what’s next is still up in the air. In the meantime, you’ll be enjoying some top-notch food as we wait to see what else is cooking.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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