Delta has just announced “The Cabin Pressure Cook Off: The Search for the Next Delta Chef”. That’s interesting to people like me who climb into at least a couple of Delta jets every week. One benefit of frequently flying between New England and my office in Atlanta is the “first class upgrade”. Along with wider seats, more leg room, and know-it-all flyers who arrogantly refuse to power down phones for takeoff, food and wine is supposed to be better in the front. For some, I guess, something in the front of the plane is better than nothing in the back. For me, fat free yogurt and Raisin Bran on morning flights are the only trays I can tolerate at 30,000 feet. So, Delta’s collaboration with Food & Wine Magazine to search for a new chef and better airline food holds my interest.
Atlanta chefs Hugh Acheson of Empire State South and Linton Hopkins of restaurants Eugene and Holeman & Finch, Kelly English of The Second Line in Memphis, and New York’s George Mendes from ALDEA are going to face off in a four part video series that will be aired through Delta’s inflight entertainment programming, delta.com, and foodandwine.com. That’s quite a lineup of chefs. But wait, doesn’t Delta already have Michelle Bernstein, Michael Chiarello, and master sommelier Andrea Robinson on its foodservice team? Can the addition of a Hugh Acheson or a Kelly English actually make a noticeable difference to the current preparation of millions of inedible meals a day in industrial kitchens spread across the country? What can they add that Chiearello, Bernstein, and Robinson have missed?
Some might think this is just a promotion linked to the credit card deal between American Express and Delta (Food & Wine Magazine is owned by American Express Publishing). Despite a full career in the magazine business, I don’t want to give into my suspicion that this is part of Food & Wine’s creative plan to win Delta’s advertising dollars this year while promoting the anniversary of their own “Best New Chef” series. I also want to believe that somebody will eventually figure out how to translate good food on the ground into something worth reheating as airline food in the air. All of these are longshot propositions, though, and the outlook remains discouraging based on facts.
Food tastes bad at 30,000 feet for reasons extending beyond industrial kitchens, inconsistent preparation, truck deliveries, tight airline budgets, flash freezing, and airplane convection ovens. Last year Jad Mouwad wrote, in a great read about airline grub for the New York Times, that on the ground “the 10,000 or so taste buds in the human mouth work pretty much as nature intended….Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows.”
Suspending the sense of taste and aroma pushes passengers to foodstuffs and drinks like tomato juice where bothersome acids on the ground become less detectable to paralyzed airborne tastebuds and nasal cilia. Plump, fat, fruity wines are generally served where a more balanced Riesling or Beaujolais will seem out of balance at serious altitudes. Food is salted and peppered into oblivion so passengers can detect some flavoring. There really is no hope.
The odds are far better that Delta found a good advertising deal with Food & Wine than a new strategy for making food taste good on airplanes at high altitudes. There is little chance that any of the competing chefs can overcome the factory processing and high altitude flavor evisceration. It pays to eat on the ground. Since I travel through this maze of gates and awful fast food joints every week, I forced myself to ferret out a few “sea level” Hartsfield Airport Terminal food spots that I can recommend:
One Flew South – Terminal E - I have not been here for a while, but the sushi and prepared local foodstuffs are really, really good. The One Flew South wine list is filled with worthwhile Sakes, Chenins, Gruners, Pinots and more. You need an hour and a half layover, at minimum, to make your way to Terminal E with enough time to enjoy your meal. There is no contest, it is the best restaurant in Hartsfield Airport.
Cafe Intermezzo – Terminal B - Bookstore/cafe combination with quiet seating in the back. Great bistro style salads, sandwiches, and finger foods. Sensible, tasty, and you can watch your calories here.
Brioche Doree-Terminal A - Good for sandwiches and breakfast
Goldberg’s Bagel Company – Terminal A - Decent bagel and turkey reuben sandwich
While I will be rooting for Linton Hopkins in the cook off since Eugene and Holeman & Finch are both favorite Atlanta spots, you’ll still find me at one of these five Hartsfield eateries while my tastebuds remain grounded.