Delta Taps Danny Meyer to Make Airline Food Taste Less Like Airline Food

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Danny Meyer, a restaurateur who dishes out some of New York’s best food, has inked a deal with Delta to elevate airline fare. This is good news, as I had the misfortune of sampling a variety of first-class or business class offerings from Virgin, United and American earlier this year, little of which tasted like it belonged anywhere outside an airplane.

Sure, the steaks were all serviceable, but a citrus rind could have passed for Lemon Pledge, cream of mushroom soup tasted fresh from the can, and the “brie and leek ravioli,” must’ve been cribbed from Betty Crocker, circa 1956. The irony is expensive: Spend $50 at Meyer’s Blue Smoke in Manhattan and a good meal is a sure thing. Spend $5,000 on a first class ticket and enjoy lovely Champagne with food that wouldn’t be out of place at a highway rest stop.

Meyer is aware of this paradox, so kudos to him for choosing Blue Smoke to bring onto the planes. The chefs behind his barbecue chain will create business class “express meals” for Delta flights between JFK and London-Heathrow, starting in February 2014. No word yet on what Blue Smoke will serve; a spokesperson for Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group said “menu development” has just begun.

There’s reason for hope. Meyer has a track record of bringing good food to places where there isn’t any. He opened Shake Shack and Blue Smoke at New York’s Citi Field back in 2009 and Washington’s Nationals Park in 2011. Meyer then opened the same outposts at Delta’s T4 terminal at JFK this year.

Will Blue Smoke work up in the air? This is where things get interesting. If Delta were run by Wes Anderson, we’d surely see Meyer wearing a “world’s best dad” apron, spit roasting pigs in the back of a 747 at 30,000 feet with the windows open. Barring that, he will have to work with LSG Sky Chefs in New York and Gate Gourmet in London to ensure that Blue Smoke tastes just as good in the air as it does on the ground.

In general, barbecue is a good choice for the airlines. The meats can be prepared entirely in advance, stored, and reheated with little degradation. (The same cannot be said for Sky Chefs’ pasta, which I sampled in March: Yuck.) Barbecue is also appropriate for eating at altitude because high elevations dull the taste buds. This isn’t where you contemplate the difference between micro-cilantro and micro-shiso; it’s where you appreciate salt, vinegar, and spice.

Let’s just hope Meyer serves his stellar beef ribs, which pack twice as much flavor as any average airline filet mignon, and which should cost Delta much less than pricey tenderloin. This isn’t just a money-saving issue. Blue Smoke gets to the heart of where airline food needs to go, which is toward actual, regional offerings served at real restaurants, as opposed to corporate test kitchens. Think of it this way: When was the last time you saw brie and leek ravioli on the menu at a good Italian joint?

Meyer’s other big task will be the hospitality equation. I’m an outlier in that I’ve never had bad service on an airline, whether flying business to Moscow or economy to Bolivia. But has the service ever been memorable? Not really, save the time a Delta flight attendant tossed me an extra mini-bottle of Tanqueray on a red-eye back home from Las Vegas—thanks, bro.

Unmemorable service usually isn’t good enough for Meyer, who stakes his reputation on hiring the kind of waiters and managers that “you’d want to have over your house for dinner.” I’d be inclined to say most people wouldn’t want to invite their flight crew back home for a nightcap. As such, Meyer has enlisted the help of Hospitality Quotient, his consulting business, to train Delta’s service staff.

These are all positive developments. But until the Blue Smoke offerings make their debut in 2014, the best advice is still to eat before you board.

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