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Celebrity Chefs Class Up Airline Food ... for Some

In the annals of good eating, airline food has long ranked up there with school-cafeteria lunches and hospital chow. In other words, it tastes suspiciously like an airplane restroom smells at the end of a nine-hour flight.

So when Delta Airlines unveiled a new line of meals this August, created by celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein of the Food Network, airbound travelers breathed a sigh of relief and stopped filling up on peanuts.

But there's a catch. Via Delta's flight attendants, Bernstein is serving up her choice grub —such as pan-seared grouper with ginger, lime, cilantro, snow peas and bean sprouts over edamame and jasmine rice, and grilled salmon with sautéed Napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and a red-wine glaze alongside a cauliflower puree — only to international BusinessElite customers.

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So while the people in the front of the plane are getting more celebrity-chef service, regular Joes and domestic flyers should try to remember to buy that jumbo pack of Combos at the airport newsstand.

“The food in coach is so bad that it's almost better that they don't serve anything at all,” said Adam Weitsman, owner of a scrap-metal business in Skaneateles, N.Y.

And as frequent flyer Jeremy Schwimmer noted, things don't seem to be getting any better for the hoi polloi.

“It seems the disparity between coach and first-class travel is ever-widening,” the 32-year-old Sarasota, Fla., finance professional said. “Most airlines seem to have eradicated the coach-class meal altogether — unless of course you are willing to buy that meal onboard.

That said, Schwimmer says he understands why airlines would focus on the upfront folks.

"Those tickets were paid for by others and generally cost five times or more the cost of a budget ticket,” he said.

Or, as a certain historical figure who doubtless would have flown first class would say: “Let them eat cake.”

“There is a difference, a significant difference, honestly, between our first-class, our business-class and our main-cabin offerings,” American Airlines manager of menu planning Tim McMahon said. “Our customers enjoy our entire in-flight experience. In the main cabin, it's a different ballgame.”

But on many foreign airlines, passengers of various classes have been enjoying celebrity chefs for years.

Lufthansa, for example, has had celebrity chefs designing its first- and business-class meals since 2000, with such culinary luminaries as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, and currently has a year-long rotation of chefs from various Peninsula Hotels, according to Lufthansa's North American spokeswoman, Jennifer Urbaniak.

On airlines like the consistently top-rated Singapore Airlines, even economy-class travelers are treated like princes compared to their American counterparts. Singapore's “culinary panel” includes Gordon Ramsay and Alfred Portale, and has previously employed the kitchen talents of famed chef David Burke.

That said, it can be argued that American Airlines was on the celebrity-chef bandwagon before anyone even uttered the phrase — since 1988, its “Chefs' Conclave” has been consulting on general menu design; some of the members even personally create some of the dishes — well, the ones in the premium cabins, of course.

In the United States in general, meanwhile, economic concerns have airlines cutting costs everywhere they can — and we all know which class suffers first.

On top of that, airline chefs and catering services are constrained by post-Sept. 11 security concerns, meaning that metal cutlery is a definite no-no, and that some customers don't even get the benefit of a plastic knife or fork, making sandwiches and wraps par for the course.

Economy passengers flying domestically on American, for example, don't get a free meal but are offered utensil-free sandwiches or snack boxes for $5 or $4, respectively. For breakfast, they may purchase $3 muffins. (American has plans to soon reintroduce metal cutlery on flights — in its premium cabins.)

“Customers understand where we turned in food and beverages post the events of Sept 11,” McMahon said. “The programs we offer are appreciated for their convenience and the choices available to them.”

But for some, it's not a good thing. The airplane trip was once something for which Americans dressed in their finest, and airplane meals were once all-china affairs. Now it's more akin to grabbing a bite on a subway or bus commute. At least for coach.

“I don't think people in coach are complaining enough,” celebrity chef Burke said. “You're resigned to it now. I usually eat before I get on or take something from one of my restaurants. You're not expecting the red carpet or anything in coach.”

But among many smaller airlines, where everyone's flying the same class, the focus is back on the details. JetBlue has earned travelers' affection with its baskets of humble but satisfying snack goodies.

And though the bigger airlines may boast about the star wattage in their kitchens, smaller American airlines have already beaten them to the punch.

Already beloved for serving fresh-baked cookies, Milwaukee, Wis.-based Midwest Airlines has a buy-onboard program that's helmed by Shawn Monroe, chef of Milwaukee landmark Mader's Restaurant. For $5 to $10, passengers are offered meals like sesame-crusted chicken breast and fresh tomato and buffalo-mozzarella salad with grilled beef tenderloin.

Monroe said some of the airline meals have proven so successful that he's actually imported them to the menu at his restaurant.

“We're setting a new bar for airline food,” he said.

At charter airline Talon Air, celebrity chef Burke is now in charge of the menu.

“The big airlines are in a different market position — the niche is a very, very difficult space and all the pressures on the carrier airlines make it difficult to survive, so they need to address the cost structure at every level,” Talon owner Adam Katz said.

“In my position, we provide services at very high luxury levels. I asked myself, 'What would customers be eating if they weren't on an airplane?' We thought about that when we developed a menu with David Burke.”

Even Burke was skeptical that celebrity chefs would catch on with bigger domestic airlines besides Delta, or would make their presence felt in economy-class meals.

“It's understandably difficult executing 5,000 meals,” he said. “I don't know if it'll catch up to the rest of the industry.”

But who needs celebrity chefs? Many flyers would be happy with a decent snack.

“Sometimes people are like, 'Can we just get a ham sandwich?'” Monroe said.

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