Sky-High Pairings

Airlines are collaborating with top-notch chefs from around the globe to offer their passengers upscale food-and-wine pairings.


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Being pampered and having lots of leg room are among the advantages of flying first or business class, but industry competition has created an impetus for another benefit—an upscale wine-and-food menu. Domestic and international airlines are working with lauded chefs from around the world to offer their customers meals boasting as much flavor and style as those found in fine restaurants 30,000 feet below. Here are some top-flight collaborations available.

Airline: Lufthansa
Chef: Toni Robertson, of Asiate in New York City

With her restaurant situated on the Mandarin Oriental’s 35th floor overlooking Central Park, it’s no surprise that chef Toni Robertson was drawn to collaborate with Lufthansa airlines on a menu for first and business class customers flying from the U.S. to Germany.

“Their corporate chef and our team cooked about 100 dishes over a period of months until we settled on 30 that worked,” Robertson says. Despite the challenges she faced—stale air circulation and potential delays in flights drying out dishes—Robertson created a delectable menu with variety. The four-course first-class menu features a selection of starters—grilled shrimp with horseradish chili sauce and beet ravioli stuffed with creamy goat cheese—and entrées, such as poached lobster tail and claw, served in a saffron reduction, with simmered mushrooms and butternut squash, and beef tenderloin with shiitake mushrooms and oxtail bread pudding. Key lime tart with strawberry consommé and milk chocolate panna cotta with coconut shortbread are dessert choices.

For business class passengers, tuna carpaccio with mizuna leaf or chicken split pea salad with plume chutney is offered as an appetizer. For the main meal, customers can choose either the miso-glazed cod with soba noodles, bean sprouts and ginger soy dressing or the semolina potato gnocchi with tomato crème sauce and fresh vegetable ragout. For dessert, it’s New York cheese cake with raspberry compote.

“I’ve got some yummy dishes,” Robertson says. But her biggest worry was not being able to supervise the preparation of the dishes on flights.

“I lost a lot of sleep at first asking myself, ‘Is this the right thing?’ But, knock on wood, the teams are using my style and presentation, and the response has been good,” she says.

Airline: American Airlines
Chef: Richard Sandoval, of Richard Sandoval Restaurants, and Marcus Samuelsson, of Marcus Samuelsson Restaurants.

Chef Richard Sandoval, the master of Mexican cuisine with more than 30 restaurants in his global empire, and Marcus Samuelsson, owner of six restaurants around the world including Harlem, New York’s Red Rooster, are well suited to join the culinary team at American Airlines. Sandoval was brought on board to create a menu for passengers flying between the U.S., and Europe and Asia and Latin America in the airline’s premium-class cabins, while Samuelsson designed a menu available for purchase on domestic flights more than two hours long as part of the main-cabin dining program.

“I wanted a pretty explosive flavor profile,” Sandoval says. “First of all, ethnic food—food that reflects the destination.” His dishes are light. “No fried foods at all…meat that becomes tender when reheated. Fish that’s cooked, but finished in the air.”

The menu rotates monthly and features dishes like halibut with truffle corn salsa and sweet potato purée, paired with S.A. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel in Germany. “The delicateness of this deep-water halibut calls for the Kabinett,” he says. Another entrée is the lemongrass-marinated chicken breast with yucca purée and chayote salsa, served with a citrus sauce and paired with Domaine des Rochers’s Pouilly-Fuissé, which “lift[s] the lemongrass tones and soften[s] the citrus sauce,” Sandoval says.

Airline: ANA, All Nippon Airways
Chef: Masayasu Yonemura, of Restaurant Yonemura in Kyoto, Japan, and Yuji Wakiya, of Wakiya in Tokyo

Hiring two esteemed chefs, Masayasu Yonemura and Yuji Wakiya, is part of ANA’s efforts to enhance the experience of business class passengers on international flights leaving Narita Airport for North America and Europe.

Yuji Wakiya, famous for his Japanese interpretations of Chinese cuisine, and Masayasu Yonemura, who has been featured in the Michelin Tokyo guide for the past three years, created a menu that features popular dishes they’ve previously prepared, including an amuse-bouche that resembles a floral arrangement, entrées centered on fish and rice and Western courses featuring filet steaks with brown sauce. At the end of the meal, customers get to choose a flavored frozen parfait.

The most popular item on the menu? “[It] has to be steak!” says Nao Gunji, an ANA spokesman. 

Airline: Delta
Chef: Michael Chiarello, of Bottega in Napa Valley, California

Chef Michael Chiarello is bringing his Italian-inspired, California-style dishes to Delta's BusinessElite travelers on domestic flights connecting New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The difficulty of the task is trying to cook a top-notch meal in “antiquated, ’60s kitchens,” says Chiarello.

“Let’s not pretend that we can pull off a hot appetizer and a hot entrée that’s exactly like what we serve at Bottega. Let’s bifurcate what we’re doing [and] serve a beautiful antipasto misto with volpi prosciutto, paired with the 2011 Chiara Bianca Ribolla Gialla and a great chicken vendemia in a sauce [with chive mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus], paired with 2010 Giana Zinfandel.”

He’s hoping for improvements in the kitchen. “I’m pushing them to start using sous-vide methods,” he says. “I think that will be the next wave.”

Airline: Singapore Airlines
Chef: Alfred Portale, of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City

This notable chef from New York City chose his airline collaboration carefully.

“Singapore Airlines first class has been rated #1 for many years by experts in the trade,” says Portale. “At one point, they were the world’s largest purchaser of caviar and Champagne, so I knew I’d be in pretty good hands in terms of the commitment to quality.”

The chef says it took him time and some experimenting to learn which foods work best in the air.

“Big, rich soups work very, very well, and a modified bollito misto,” he says, adding that short ribs with braised leeks, seafood stew and warm vinaigrettes are other top options. Portale also created dishes around compound butters that turn into “wonderful sauces” when reheated and melted over fish.

He pairs the seafood stew with Patrick Piuze’s Terroir de Courgis Chablis. For the short ribs, he suggests a wine from the Piedmont-based cooperative, Produttori del Barbaresco.

Portale, who creates about 40 menu items each year for the airline, isn’t worried that customers will compare his airborne foods to his Gotham menu.

“What’s important is that they have the best food they ever have in the air,” he says. “That’s what we’re shooting for!”

Grilled Shrimp, Heart of Palm, Horseradish Sauce
Recipe courtesy Toni Robertson, chef at Asiate, New York City

8 jumbo prawns, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon olive oil, for brushing
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ cup cucumber, julienned
¼ cup red onion, julienned
½ cup celery, julienned
½ cup shaved heart of palm
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon dill, chopped
¼ cup Japanese mayonnaise
2 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish
½ teaspoon chili powder
A pinch of cayenne pepper

Preheat a grill to high heat.

Brush the prawns with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill the pawns on each side for about one minute. Remove from the grill, cover and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cucumber, red onion, celery and heart of palm with the rice vinegar, sugar, dill, salt and pepper, and mix well. Once mixed, let rest for 10 minutes.

In a separate mixing bowl, combine the mayonnaise, horseradish, chili powder, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper, and mix.

To serve, evenly divide the heart of palm salad among four plates. Top with prawns, and serve the horseradish sauce on the side for dipping. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Nobilo’s 2010 Icon Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand

For tips on where to find the best airport restaurants, click here.

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