This Is the Year Airplane Food Got Pretty Good
Plus, seven airlines that really stepped it up.
Historically, in-flight food and beverage programs have gotten a bad rap, and reasonably so. But in the last few years, several airlines have worked to elevate their offerings. Air France has collaborated with big-name chefs like Joël Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, and Anne-Sophie Pic, while Delta launched new Main Cabin perks for flyers this year, serving free Bellinis on international flights and adding new entrées to the menu.
Between 2018 and 2019 alone, even more revamped options have become available for travelers. American Airlines announced a partnership with the James Beard Foundation in November; Finnair brought on Michelin-starred chef David Posey for a collaboration in September. And while you might expect the highbrow food to be exclusively reserved for business and first class travelers, some airlines, like Cathay Pacific, have also ensured that economy passengers can reap the rewards, too.
Check out a handful of the airlines who've upgraded their menus in a major way over the past year.
This year, Air France partnered with chef Daniel Rose, the esteemed American-turned-Parisian chef behind New York’s Le Coucou and several popular Paris haunts, including La Bourse et La Vie and Chez La Vieille. The Michelin-starred chef crafted three comfort-food dishes for business class trips to Paris from several major U.S. cities (see the full list here): poultry gratin with onions, warm poultry paté with foie gras, and a luscious cod with turnip and beurre blanc that I can easily say is the best meal I’ve ever had on an airplane. Rose’s twists on soulful French classics translate in the sky, as does the robust selection of French wines on offer to pair. The chef follows in a long line of esteemed French chefs who’ve collaborated on menus for the airline, including Daniel Boulud and Anne-Sophie Pic. – Maria Yagoda, digital restaurant editor
It makes sense that an Italian operation would be somewhat obsessive about its food, and the dining program in Magnifica, Alitalia’s business class, is exactly that: high quality, obsessively sourced, and rooted in local traditions. Developed in partnership with Gambero Rosso, one of Italy’s biggest authorities on food and wine, the seasonally-changing offerings are “no longer regional menus, but inspired by the territories,” per Alitalia. Following an aperitivo of Aperol Spritz and little bites (think cheese plates of Grana, Fiore Sardo, and smoked Scamorza), passengers can choose from traditional antipasti, primi, secondi, contorno, and dessert, just as one would at a trattoria, with expert regional pairings. I never thought I would eat Gaeta octopus tiella, a rustic pie that my grandfather’s Lazio hometown is famous for, while 30,000 feet in the air, but there I was. – Maria Yagoda
In November, the airline announced it was teaming up with the James Beard Foundation—the first time the foundation has partnered with an airline—to launch a multi-year dining program featuring rotating menus from award-winning chefs. The new menus will be served in Flagship First Dining and Flagship lounges starting on December 3, and the following first and business class routes starting on December 11—U.S. to Europe, U.S. to South America, and transcontinental flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The first partnership will be with Top Chef alum and Monteverde chef Sarah Grueneberg. In Flagship First Dining, guests can expect grilled Roman-style artichokes, mushroom bolognese, and dark chocolate budino; the Flagship Lounge will serve Grueneberg’s Tuscan kale salad with beets, apples, goat cheese, spiced sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seed medley, and tahini dressing, per the announcement. As for the plane? There will be artichoke ravioli and spinach and ricotta rotolo pasta. You can pre-order the dishes starting 30 days before a flight or up to 24 hours prior to departure.
Cathay Pacific’s recently launched “Hong Kong Flavours menu” offers dishes inspired by the airline’s home city—and it has options available for first class, business class, and both premium economy and regular economy. In first class, you can find braised abalone with flower shiitake and choy sum-layered bean curd; economy class offers Hong Kong-style seafood curry rice and soy-braised chicken with Chinese sausage on steamed jasmine rice. No matter which ticket you buy, you’re bound to get a decent meal. The airline also partnered with local Hong Kong tea purveyor Fook Ming Tong to serve a selection of Chinese teas, including jasmine, oolong, and pu’er, available to all classes.
Since 2013, Finnair has been running a program that partners with chefs from around the world to create signature menus for business class passengers. The latest was announced this past September—Michelin-starred chef David Posey from Elske in Chicago, the first U.S. chef to participate. His Nordic-inspired menu, including dishes like roasted pork collar with crushed fingerling potatoes, broccoli creamed spinach and caramel-pork jus, will be available on all business class flights departing the U.S. through March 2021.
Over the summer, the German airline launched a children's menu—yes, children’s menu—created by Alexander Herrmann, known for his two-starred Michelin restaurant Alexander Herrmann by Tobias Bätz in Wirsberg, Germany. Flyers under the age of 12—in all classes of service—can enjoy dishes like “Dragon Feet” (poultry sausages served with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes) and a “Rice Pudding Mouse,” a composition of creamed rice pudding and raspberries. The dishes are meant to be just as visual appealing as they are tasty; they also only use “high-quality fats such as olive oil” in reduced quantities. To get the free meals, parents need to order them 24 hours before departure.
Singapore Airlines is known for having high-quality food, and it just keeps getting better. This year, the airline rolled out a new “spa-inspired” menu on the world’s longest flight between Singapore and Newark, in partnership with wellness brand Canyon Ranch. In other words? The food is made with lower fat, carbs, and sodium counts to combat the effects of spending 19 hours on a plane, but rest assured, it’s still indulgent. SIA also announced a six-month collaboration with Ramen Keisuke back in September, with dishes like Keisuke Lobster Ramen and Keisuke Tonkotsu Ramen available on select flights; in October, “farm-to-tray-table” meals also launched in business class on the Newark to Singapore route. The latter involves dishes made with produce provided by AeroFarms, a vertical farm five miles away from Newark Airport.