Can You Get Really Good Food at 35,000 Feet?

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Last year, Union Square Café, a mainstay of the New York dining scene and the first jewel in Danny Meyer’s culinary empire, announced it would be closing its doors at 21 East 16th Street, where it had resided for more than 30 years. But there’s good news: The New American restaurant, which has earned myriad awards, stars, and nods of recognition, will be relocating to new digs just a few blocks away and will open sometime this spring. Until then, you can eat iconic dishes like sugar snap peas with pancetta and pecorino while crossing the Atlantic.

Starting March 1, Delta One passengers flying from New York to Europe have the option to tuck into that famous pea salad, or perhaps Cara Cara oranges with pine nuts, fennel, and ricotta salata is more to their liking? This offering is just the latest in an ongoing relationship between Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and Delta Air Lines. The partnership began in 2013 with Blue Smoke barbecue and, as of late last year, you can also get chicken meatballs from Meyer’s Italian eatery Marta on select flights.

Of course, these offerings are limited to Delta’s upper-class cabin, but it’s part of a gambit that a lot of airlines seem to be making that good food might be a differentiating factor for frequent (or even not-so-frequent) flyers.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

But is good food — really good food, not just good airplane food — even possible? We chatted with Carmen Quagliata, the Union Square Café chef behind Delta’s menu, and Andrea Robinson, Delta’s Master Sommelier, about the challenges of serving food and wine up in the air. This is what they had to say.

Food tastes different.

The combination of low cabin pressure and low humidity aren’t good news for your taste buds or your sense of smell. “A dry cabin environment really mutes your sense of smell, which is the critical sense (even more so than taste) for being able to sense flavors,” explains Robinson, who has overseen Delta’s wine program for the past eight years. She adds that “the higher vaporization rate on board due to lower cabin pressure causes the aromas in wine and food that create flavor perception to dissipate more quickly.”

The solution? “My focus is to make sure the wines I choose have a presence on the palate. Texturally the wines have to be pretty juicy to complement how dried out your palate and olfactory sensory are. To keep on top of this, I take wines by category (and sometimes even vintage) on board to see how they will adapt in flight.”

You can’t control everything.

“In the restaurant, we teach the cooks that small elements — such as the way you dress a salad — can create a huge difference in how that dish is enjoyed by the guest,” says Quagliata. “At first, I didn’t like the prospect of people having to pour their own vinaigrette over their sugar snap peas salad! It was hard to accept that certain aspects were out of my control.”

Texture is tricky, but not impossible.

Wouldn’t it be nice to bite into a crispy, juicy piece of fried chicken? Sadly, creating certain textures in the galleys isn’t always possible. But there are work-arounds. For example, Quagliata swaps out the crispy artichoke slices with pan-roasted diced sunchokes as a topping for his beef tartare. It’s not exactly the same, but Quagliata says it gives “the dish that texture I hoped to achieve as well as that choke flavor.”

Seasonality and sourcing are key.

Seasonality is a big part of the menu at Union Square Café, so Quagliata knew he wanted the menu to include seasonal dishes, like that Cara Cara salad. “Both USHG and Delta are completely committed to working with purveyors that are devoted to growing and selling fresh ingredients,” says Quagliata. “We are sourcing a great domestic smoke ham from La Quercia, as well as using basil and ramps from Gotham Greens & Mountain Sweet Berry Farm — both of which are regular stands at the Union Square Greenmarket.”

Seasonality also comes into play with the wine program. “I focus on the ingredients I know will be used, and the chef partner’s signature flavors,” explains Robinson. “It’s important to me to have a conversation about the ingredients that will be used in the dishes and the various suppliers and purveyors who will play a part in each menu.”

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Warm nuts are always a good idea.

We don’t know about you, but our favorite part about flying may very well be the nuts, even if they are just the tiny packets of salted or honey-roasted peanuts in economy. Union Square Café’s take includes rosemary, brown sugar, cayenne, butter, and salt — a combination Quagliata describes as “simple but addictive.”