Farm to tray table: How airline meals went gourmet

Delta Airlines farm to tray table _00005726
Delta Airlines farm to tray table _00005726

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Story highlights

  • Airlines are realizing well-fed customers are happy customers
  • Delta Airlines serve locally sourced Atlanta food to premium passengers

(CNN)Unsavory, unhealthy and unprofitable: That's the, somewhat deserved, reputation airplane food has acquired over the years.

Back in the golden age of flying, a delectable three-course meal served on fancy glassware was to be expected.
    But as the airline industry grew and gave way to the economy class, providing high-quality in-flight dining became unsustainable.
    Complimentary meals in the US -- even the drab old "chicken or beef" we once laughed at -- have disappeared altogether from most economy class cabins on domestic flights.
    On international flights where the hours are longer than our stomachs can go without food, plane food is served whether we like it or not.

    Airline food gains wings

    But in recent years, many airlines have recognized that the best way to a customer's heart, and wallet, is through their stomach.
    So in came the celebrity chefs, exotic ingredients and nutritious, delicious options.
    JetBlue's Mint class passengers can now enjoy food from renowned New York restaurant Saxon + Parole, along with a drinks service curated by wine expert Jon Bonné.
    United Airlines has crafted a refined culinary experience, with palate-pleasing main courses that read like an upscale restaurant menu. Duck confit ravioli, anyone?

    Farm-to-traytable movement

    Riverview Farms is located 90 minutes away from Delta Airlines HQ.
    In 2013, Delta airlines took a different approach to the way its on-board cuisine was prepared for premium class passengers on select Delta One flights: thinking locally, to serve globally.
    The farm-to-table food movement began in the 2000s as part of a mission to reimagine what healthy food means, using buzzwords like "organic," "non-GMO" and "locally grown."
    This "real food" model unifies chefs and farmers in sustainable agriculture, through direct sourcing straight from farms to restaurants.
    For Delta this means organic produce and meats from Wes and Charlotte Swancy's Riverview Farms in Ranger, Georgia, just 90 minutes' drive from Delta's Atlanta headquarters.
    Then homegrown chef Linton Hopkins, a household name in Atlanta for his upscale but down-to-earth, farm-fresh Southern fare, takes the regional flavors to new heights.
    "If we don't build a menu with a sense of identity in place, I think you really lose people," says Hopkins.
    "I said [to Delta], 'Let's just cook from scratch, just outbound Atlanta. Let's move the menus to seasonal and then start with local artisans,'" he says.
    The day's menu is set in Chef Hopkins' kitchen.

    Preparation and presentation

    Most carriers leave the cooking to an airline caterer, like GateGourmet. Chef Hopkins does things a little differently.
    He has a full kitchen staff dedicated to preparing and cooking the meals that end up on Delta One flights outbound from Atlanta.
    The same ingredients are used here as in his renowned Restaurant Eugene.
    "All I have to do is cook. Then we deliver every day in our refrigerated truck, all the components of these dishes already prepped so that they [GateGourmet] just have to put them into a box."
    Appearance is just as important as premium ingredients and flavor, according to Hopkins.
    "We work with the flight attendants to train them on how to plate the food," he says.

    Delta's take

    "Customers want healthy, but I think they also want authentic meals," notes Brian Berry, Delta's director of on-board services.
    "They want to know where their food comes from, right? Was it mass-produced? People care about that.
    "Just because it's on the plane doesn't mean a customer shouldn't be able to eat how they eat in their real lives," he says.
    It's been a success so far, but not without some trial and error. And the airlines aren't always the ones to blame -- our taste buds are significantly impaired 30,000 feet in the air.
    "Linton actually flew with us when he first started working with us. He came back and changed the recipes because he did realize that it does taste different on board," Berry says.
    Why go through all the trouble of doing all of this?
    "It's about creating a different experience for the customer," says Berry. "
    We don't just fly customers A to B. When they get on board Delta, we want them to have an amazing experience. The food is an important part of that piece."