Aha! that explains the boring variety out there... but not why these same
items are OK for the front cabin, but verboten in the back of the bus. Ah,
crass elitism. Gotta love it... RK
Airlines: Take 2,000 Chicken Thighs, Add 600 Eggs, Stir...
By Susan Carey Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
CHICAGO -- Sheila Lukins's recipe for Rustic Tarragon Chicken in Repose
could test the skills of many a cook. But for Ina Manaster, it lacked some
crucial instructions: how to make several thousand servings, then squeeze
them into those little white airline casserole dishes and freeze them.
"I was very nervous about this," says Mrs. Manaster, who oversees the
production of more than 50 million airline meals a year.
The story of how she tackled this unusual culinary problem began when
United Airlines commissioned Ms. Lukins, co-author of the noted Silver
Palate cookbooks, to concoct a batch of meals for its flights. Other
airlines had turned to famous chefs before to give their maligned menus a
facelift, usually aimed at firstand business-class passengers. But United
ordered up Ms. Lukins's concoctions for the people crammed in the back of
In a United commercial, Ms. Lukins stands before a giant vat on a stove as
she confers with United chefs decked out in white toques. In the real
world, the actual work takes place in the South Side Chicago frozen-food
factory of Culinary Foods Inc., where Mrs. Manaster presides. And as she
can testify, it's a long trip between a recipe in Ms. Lukins's new "U.S.A.
Cookbook" and a batch of 20,000 frozen Savory Succulent Chicken Pot Pies.
Interpreting Ms. Lukins's recipes for the masses "was probably the most
expensive R&D endeavor in the history of the company," says Mrs. Manaster,
whose husband Murray founded Culinary Foods but sold it to food-processing
giant Tyson Foods Inc. three years ago.
For United, the combination of airline meals and a well-known food expert
appears to be a success. Passenger surveys in May and June on United
flights featuring "Sheila meals" saw food satisfaction ratings rise 27%
from the year before and meal taste ratings jump 29%. "This is
unprecedented," says Bob Sobczewski, a United onboard service manager.
"Anything over 2% in economy class is huge."
Culinary has been serving up airline entrees for 37 years. It has dished
out egg-and-turkey breakfast burritos for Delta Air Lines, citrus ginger
chicken thighs for Continental Airlines, hickory-smoked salmon for US
Airways and swordfish for Korean Air.
Inside its factory, workers stir huge vessels of mashed potatoes with tools
that resemble pitchforks, blanch vegetables in tubs suspended from overhead
cranes and whip up omelettes on an assembly line that is an engineering
wonder. It employs five "development chefs" and two "food technologists."
Despite all these skills, the Lukins meals presented unusual challenges.
Ms. Lukins "gave us her recipes pretty much as you'd find them in her
cookbook," says Mrs. Manaster. "She'd call for stewing a whole chicken with
spices for three hours." But in a food plant, she says, "if we cooked it
for three hours, it would turn to dust."
That's not all. "We can't serve one passenger a breast and another a
thigh," says Mrs. Manaster. Airlines require that portions be strictly
controlled and each dish spiced identically. Moreover, she says, the meals
must be prepared quickly and with fewer ingredients and yet "still capture
the subtleties" of Ms. Lukins's flavors.
According to Mrs. Manaster, Ms. Lukins's recipe for barley risotto "was
delicious." But in the tiny United serving dish, "it looked like oatmeal,"
she says. And that wouldn't do because coach food doesn't come with a menu
Other problems: The vegetables in the pot pie released water when the dish
was heated, so Culinary had to coat them with a sauce to hold in the
liquid. Chefs at the mass-production kitchen had to figure out how to
translate Ms. Lukins's slow-cooked BBQ Brisket into a fast-cooked but
tender airline meal that "looks like what you'd cook at home on a Sunday
afternoon," says Mrs. Manaster.
Ms. Lukins was drawn into the world of airline food when she attended a
dinner party in New York last year. She found herself seated next to Stuart
Oran, general counsel of United Airlines' parent, UAL Corp. They got to
talking about airline food and he invited her to visit United's
headquarters near Chicago to see if she could help the company improve its
"All the airlines have special chefs and special consultants and always put
their efforts into first class," Ms. Lukins says. "I preferred to do coach
because it gets so little attention." Ms. Lukins agreed to design 25 hot
coach meals, each with two side dishes, in a full-flavored, regional
American theme. United and Ms. Lukins decline to discuss the financial
terms of her one-year contract.
Ms. Lukins, who has been cooking professionally since 1976, says she
initially had trepidations. "It was my reputation, too," she says, calling
the assignment "extremely hard to do." For starters, she says, United
"dramatically limited" her repertoire by proscribing meals featuring fish,
lamb or pork -- fish, it says, is too smelly, lamb isn't popular enough and
pork poses religious problems.
Left with garden-variety chicken, beef and pasta, Ms. Lukins says she chose
recipes that she thought could withstand being prepared in huge quantities,
frozen, carted around and reheated. "I was aware of what has to go into
airline food," she says, although "the technical problems I had no way of
She soon learned. "Eggplant, when it freezes, turns black," Ms. Lukins
says. "Red bell pepper in any dish with cream in it bleeds [when it's
heated]. They didn't tell me that." And when United's chefs asked her to
figure out the portions, she declined. "It's not my job to worry about
After six months of testing, United agreed to a roster of Lukins recipes
and put the dishes out to bid at Culinary and a number of its competitors.
Mrs. Manaster says each contestant had 12 weeks to serve up frozen samples
for the cook-off, a "blind tasting" by United.
In the end, United settled on 17 "Sheila meals" that met its criteria for
visual appeal, flavor and price. The airline awarded Culinary the contract
to prepare 14 of them for a year-long promotion while two other frozen-food
factories won the remaining three meals, all pasta recipes. The new Lukins
entrees, which started flying domestically in May, include Laquered Maple
Syrup Chicken, Shaker Cranberry Brisket and Backyard BBQ Roast Beef.
"They weren't cooked in my kitchen," says the 54-year-old Ms. Lukins. "But
I tasted them all and saw them all and blessed them all." She never visited
Culinary until her meals -- 36,000 out of the more than 200,000 that United
serves daily -- were in production.
Ms. Lukins is unapologetic about her foray into mass-market cuisine. "A
high-quality production facility should not be thought of in the
pejorative," she says.
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