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Forget What You Think You Know About Airplane Food: See These Epic Celebrity Chef-Designed Menus

Fine dining in the sky is possible... and not just in first class.

By Eric Rosen
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Forget plastic trays heaped with unidentifiable mush: In the past decade, airlines around the world have raised their game in terms of the cuisine they offer onboard, especially (but not exclusively!) in their business- and first-class cabins. Many have turned to celebrity chefs and gourmet restaurateurs with loyal followings in order to bring not only taste, but also a bit of glamour, back to flying. Here are 13 airlines on which you can find household names in the galley that might actually inspire you to Instagram your airplane meal. (And no, not in the so-bad-it's-good-enough-to-go-viral way, either.)

1. Air France

Air France decided to capitalize upon its national heritage as home to some of the world’s greatest restaurants by asking Michelin-starred chefs from around the country to create the menus for its first and business class passengers. Every few months, there are new selections from big names. Those recently working on the airline’s business class menus included Michelin two-starred chef Olivier Bellin, Guy Martin from Le Grand Véfour in Paris, and Michel Roth, who has won the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award. 

First-class fliers from US destinations including Los Angeles and New York can sample selections created by über-chef Daniel Boulud, while those on flights leaving from Paris have a choice of dishes by the likes of Joël Robuchon and Anne-Sophie Pic, among others. One of Robuchon’s recent items was a pan-seared sea bass with lemongrass cream and leek fondue. Wine lists in both cabins are changed up every two months. And if you to happen visit the airline’s flagship La Première lounge at Paris Charles de Gaulle, you’ll be treated to meals created by another French superstar, Alain Ducasse. You know, just to keep things interesting.

2. Air New Zealand

The Kiwi carrier has long partnered with one of New Zealand’s best-known chefs, Peter Gordon, of Auckland’s The Sugar Club and London’s The Providores. But it has also recently brought on restaurateur Michael Meredith as its newest consulting toque. You might recognize him as the man behind Auckland fine-dining establishment Meredith’s, but he now also helps design menus in the airline’s swanky Business Premier cabins. “For many visitors to our country, Air New Zealand offers their very first taste of New Zealand and we take this responsibility very seriously,” he said when the partnership was announced. So expect serious dishes like roasted chicken Marbella with creamed corn polenta, sautéed kale, green olive and mustard salsa; or nectarine ice cream with a ginger wafer and blueberry compote.

3. All Nippon Airways

One of Japan’s two major airlines, ANA employs so-called “Connoisseurs” to create its menus, which change every few months. The roster includes 16 personalities like Toru Okuda of Ginza Okudo and Joachim Splichal of California’s Patina Restaurant Group. The chef currently creating dishes in business class for flights from Japan to North America and Europe is Masayoshi Nishikawa of Gion Nishikawa in Kyoto, which has been awarded two Michelin stars for eight years running. French pastry chef Pierre Hermé, meanwhile, is the man keeping things sweet with extraordinary and eye-catching desserts.

4. American Airlines

While domestic travel seems to have fewer frills than ever, American is keeping up its attempts to woo high-value fliers by hiring famous names in the foodie world to create menus for its premium cabins. In fact, the airline recently announced that it would be introducing menu creations from two new chef partners. Jun Kurogi of Kurogi Shiba Daimon Tokyo will be curating traditional Japanese dishes for the airline’s business and first cabins on flights from Tokyo Haneda and Narita to the US (he also works with American’s alliance partner, Japan Airlines). Chef Sean Connolly, an award-winning celebrity chef based in New Zealand and Australia, will be in charge of premium cabin meals on American’s flights from Auckland and Sydney, including a special appetizer, four main dishes, and a dessert course.

American already partners with Chicago-based James Beard Award-winning chef Maneet Chauhan, who designs the premium menus on flights from the U.S. to Europe and between the U.S. and South America, and will soon be in charge of menus from China to the U.S. as well (look out for specialties like duck confit pot pie, and ossobuco with caramelized onions, cardamom and black garlic risotto). Chef Sam Choy looks after the menus on transcontinental flights and between the US Mainland and Hawaii. Earlier this year, American Airlines brought on Bobby Stuckey to be the airline’s wine ambassador and oversee its onboard and lounge wine program.

5. Delta

In terms of U.S. airlines, Delta was one of the first to see the benefit of partnering with well-known chefs. It brought on James Beard Award winner chef Michelle Bernstein of Miami’s Michy’s way back in 2007, and has since partnered with Michael Chiarello and Atlanta-based Linton Hopkins, who still oversees the premium meals on flights out of Delta’s Atlanta hub to South America and Europe. 

Meanwhile, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group has designed the menus for flights to European hubs like Amsterdam and Paris, while Jereme Leung, Norio Ueno and Kwon Woo-Joong do the food for flights from China, Japan and Korea. The airline has also recently expanded its partnership with L.A.-based chef duo Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun to include making meals for transcontinental flights and those from L.A. to Australia (save room for their braised flank steak with spring onions, roasted boniato Japanese sweet potatoes, braised gem lettuce and a roasted vegetable sauce). Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson is the one in charge of the airline’s lounge and onboard wine selection.

6. Japan Airlines

JAL has one of the most comprehensive onboard menu programs of any airline, dubbed “BEDD Sky Auberge.” The airline switches up its offerings quarterly and partners with a whole host of well-known Japanese chefs and personalities (the number at the moment is nine). Among those whose food you might currently find on the airline are Hideki Ishikawa and Kouji Koizumi, both of whom head Michelin three-star restaurants. Sommelier Motohiro Okoshi oversees the wine.

One recent business-class menu included dishes like braised beef and tofu with sweet soy sauce; and grilled Yu’an-style salmon with Japanese tartar sauce accompanied by Tosa Shiragiku Junmai Ginjo sake from the Kochi prefecture on Shikoku.

7. Lufthansa

German carrier Lufthansa launched an innovative program where, rather than partnering with a single big-name celebrity chef, it instead draws upon the expertise of top-tier hotel chefs from around the world for country-specific menus on various routes. For instance, Xiaosheng Gao from the Shangri-La Pudong Hotel in Shanghai oversees menus from China. Vinod Saini from The Leela Palace Kempinski and Kunal Kapur from The Leela Ambience Gurgaon Hotel & Residences looks after menus on flights to India. Passengers in first class, meanwhile, are treated to wines selected by world champion sommelier Markus Del Monego as part of the airline’s “Vinothek Discoveries” tasting program.

8. Qantas

Australian airline Qantas pioneered the concept of partnering with celebrity chefs in 1997 when it brought aboard Neil Perry, who put Aussie fine dining on the map at his flagship restaurant, Rockpool. That relationship is still going strong today. Perry’s team also oversees pretty much all of Qantas’s catering, from its network of lounges around the world, to the menus on board its flights, and over the years, they’ve produced popular dishes like stir-fried crab omelette with oyster sauce and grilled salmon with chili, garlic, cherry tomatoes and squid ink noodles. First, business-class and premium economy passengers can pre-order meals for their flights between 12 hours and seven days in advance. First class passengers, meanwhile, can choose from a dozen main choices or opt for an eight-course tasting menu. What else are you going to do on that long flight across the Pacific?

Perry and Qantas even teamed up with scientists from the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney to devise new jetlag-fighting menus for the airline’s just-launched service between Perth and London, which clocks in at 17 hours, 20 minutes. 

One sample dish recently unveiled was seared Cone Bay barramundi with broccolini, lemon, olive and almond salsa and garlic roasted potatoes. Wine lists, meanwhile, draw from a who’s who of Australian producers in an effort to showcase the country’s phenomenal vintages.

9. Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s best airlines, and it takes that role to heart when it comes to food in particular. The airline employs not one celebrity chef, but a so-called “International Culinary Panel” of eight chefs from around the world to conceive of new menu items for its premium cabins.

Among them are Alfred Portale of Gotham in New York, Mathew Moran of Aria in Sydney, Georges Blanc from Vonnas in France and Suzanne Goin from Lucques and AOC Los Angeles. What’s more, business and first class passengers can take advantage of Singapore Airlines’ “Book the Cook” service to pre-order from over 60 dishes in advance of their flight. Recent options included the airline’s signature lobster Thermidore, prawn chicken laksa soup, Indian-style pistachio lamb chops and a simple eight-ounce rib-eye steak.

10. South African Airways

South African Airways enlisted the help of two of the country’s top chefs to keep its menus interesting and engaging: Reuben Riffel and Benny Masekwameng. Riffel has restaurants at the One & Only Cape Town and in the wine country town of Franschhoek, while Masekwameng is a judge on MasterChef South Africa and executive chef of The Tsogo Sun. Among the dishes you might find on their menus are cucumber cups with salmon tartare, wasabi paste and red caviar; and grilled prawn skewers with grilled pepper, baby corn and chili-lemon butter over saffron rice.

11. United

After Chicago chef Charlie Trotter passed away in 2013, several of the younger chefs he mentored partnered with United on “The Trotter Project” to develop menus for the airline’s flagship Polaris international business class service as well as some premium transcontinental flights. Among those you might recognize are Bill Kim of urbanbelly Restaurants in Chicago, Jesse Dunford Wood of Parlour in London, Noriyuki Sugi of Hitachino Beer & Wagyu in San Francisco, Della Gossett of Spago Beverly Hills and Michael Armstrong of Tao Group New York.

12. Vietnam Airlines

Though this Southeast Asian carrier does not currently fly to the U.S., its route network is rapidly expanding to the rest of Asia and Europe. As its country’s flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines has taken up the mantle of showcasing the nation’s heritage and cuisine aboard flights. To wit, recently appointed cookbook author and TV host Luke Nguyen as its global cuisine ambassador. The chef is currently under contract with the airline for three years and will begin developing eight special dishes for business class passengers departing on the airline’s flights from Australia to Vietnam, specifically.

13. Virgin Australia

Australia’s other major carrier has partnered with chef Luke Mangan for about a decade now. Known for restaurants like Salt in Tokyo and glass brasserie in Sydney, Mangan brings a patented “paddock to plane” philosophy to the airline’s “The Business” cabin. He focuses on freshness and highlighting Australian producers and suppliers. Case in point: Recent dishes like baba ghanoush with marinated feta, pine nuts and toasted flatbread, and garlic toast with prosciutto, fennel and herb salad. Mangan’s restaurant group sommelier, Mauro Bortolato, selects the wines, which he chooses specifically for their in-flight drinkability.

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