National Airlines Now Featuring Elevated In-Flight Culinary Programs

By L.M. Archer, Foodable Contributor

As consumer demand for fresh, healthy meals grows, more and more airlines are investing in carefully curated, seasonal food and drink offerings to meet these needs. A select few airlines even seek to purvey artisan fare from regional farmers, fishermen, cheesemongers, foragers, and craft beverage and wine makers.

Here, Foodable TV unveils four airlines elevating their in-flight food programs.

Delta Airlines

Call it a flair for Southern hospitality. Delta Airlines savors a long history of enhanced customer in-flight service. In 2007, Delta partnered with Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. Robinson oversees an ambitious annual selection of exceptional onboard wines. Delta also serves an ever-changing roster of local craft beers.

As for cookery, Delta tapped restaurateur and James Beard Award Winning Chef Linton Hopkins of Atlanta in 2014 to reinvent Delta’s in-flight dining lineup. Right away, Chef Hopkins honed in on designing choices rich with colloquial flavors. As a result, today over 30 area farmers and artisans enjoy sustainable businesses due to Delta’s commitments to ongoing volumes that ensure continued growth.

Not content to merely re-craft Delta’s culinary philosophy, Chef Hopkins also spearheaded its shift toward enlisting other culinary partners, including award-winning restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, Napa chef Michael Chiarello, and Luvo for nutritionist-approved options.

Another recent innovation includes a one-off event entitled "Chef Swap," a collaboration between Chef Hinton, Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, Los Angeles chefs Vinny Dotolo & Jon Shook of Animal, and Seattle’s Ethan Stowell of Tavolata.

The Delta food and wine teams alternated between venues, first in Seattle, where Chef Stowell hosted chefs Vinny and Jon on a tour of Ballard Farmers Market and Taylor Shellfish to choose tasty items to serve at Tavolata that night. Meanwhile, the California contingency airlifted in their own fresh California seafood, while Chef Hinton unpacked his favorite Ham Leg Grits straight from Georgia. “Chef Swap” showcased the importance of direct relationships between the airline, chefs, local farms, and artisans toward improving the quality and ambiance, of dining on Delta.

Hawaiian Airlines

For those hankering for a taste of the island, Hawaiian Airlines launched their popular Featured Chef Series in June 2015. The scheme offers savory cuisine from top Hawaiian chefs like Jon Matsubara of Japengo, Bravo "Top Chef" cheftestant Lee Anne Wong of Koko Head and Hale Ohuna, Wade Ueoka of MW Restaurant, Andrew Le of The Pig and the Lady, and Sheldon Simeon of Mala Wailea and Migrant. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya collaborates on all airline wine pairings.

“We are dedicated to creating an authentic Hawaiian experience, calling on the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the islands so our guests can begin their Hawaii journey from the moment they board the plane,” said Renee Awana, senior director of product development for Hawaiian Airlines. “The guest chef program represents Hawaiian’s continued support of local talent, giving our guests the opportunity to sample world-class dishes from rising stars in our dynamic culinary scene.”

Through 2017, chefs and dishes rotate every six months for all first class cabin in-flight service from Hawaii to the Mainland. Look for local ingredients like taro poke with seaweed, short ribs with taro, and inamona with scallions. Throughout the Featured Chef Series, Hawaiian’s executive chef Chai Chaowasaree continues meal preparation for all Mainland flights returning to the islands.

United Airlines

United Airlines' Strawberry Fields Salad | Courtesy United Airlines

United Airlines' Strawberry Fields Salad | Courtesy United Airlines

The spirit of beloved Chicago chef Charlie Trotter flies high on United Airlines. Since 2015, United Airlines has partnered with The Trotter Project, a non-profit named in memory of beloved Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who died unexpectedly in 2013. The Trotter Project continues Chef Trotter's legacy through mentor and internship programs for youth interested in the culinary arts.

"Our relationship with United is a natural fit, given Chef Charlie Trotter's history as one of its celebrity chefs," said Derrek J. Hull, executive director of The Trotter Project in a press release. "Through this exciting, new partnership, his alumni and culinary supporters will continue that spirit of service and excellence. We look forward to further elevating the in-flight dining experience for United's customers and providing more opportunities to the next generation of great culinary talent."

Participating chefs helped develop new menu ideas for United Business First Class, p.s. Premium Service, and economy-cabin Choice Menu Bistro on Board. They also replaced snack boxes with freshly prepared entrees served on chinaware in premium cabins on some United Express regional-jet service, and introduced illycaffe’s premium scuro dark roast and espresso, craft cocktails, and seasonal beers to their drink selections.

"We're listening to our customers and taking action to make their journeys more memorable," said Jimmy Samartzis, United's vice president of food services and United Clubs, in a press release. "By delivering more restaurant-quality meals prepared with the best ingredients, and more chances to enjoy complimentary drinks like seasonal beer, we're getting to the heart of what customers tell us they want from their travel experience."

Virgin America

Leave it to entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin America, to demand a bold, innovative in-flight meals. Virgin America mixes it up with just-picked fruits and vegetables, custom meats, and artisan breads. Virgin’s assortment varies quarterly, and includes sumptuous main-cabin items like veggie wrap of arugula, roasted golden beets, red quinoa, cherry tomatoes, feta and carrot Sriracha hummus in a cucumber tortilla, served up with a side of fresh fruit salad.

Virgin was named healthiest food in the air in 2015 by Diet Detective, and won an award for “Best Domestic Airline for Food” in Travel + Leisure 2014's World's Best Awards, and “Notable In-Flight Dining” in SAVEUR Culinary Travel Awards for both main cabin and first class. And in 2015, Virgin joined forces with gourmet grocer Dean & DeLuca to proffer upscale first class flyer snack selections. As for travelers with children, Virgin carries Jetset Kids Packs, comprised of healthy snacks like Musselman’s Apple Sauce, Old Wisconsin’s Turkey Snack Stick, and Yum Earth Fruit Snacks.

Clearly, as these airlines illustrate, air travel allows consumers not only an opportunity to expand their horizons, but to elevate their in-flight gastronomic ambit as well.