Airline Food: First Class Tips

Traveling soon and wondering what may be on your menu? Nancy Brussat can tell you.

Brussat, perhaps best known in these parts as the owner of Convito Café & Market in Wilmette, has been a member of the elite American Airlines Chefs’ Conclave since 1989, helping bring a gourmet twist to in-flight dining.

So we got her tips for the upcoming spring break and summer travel season. If you’re lucky, and can upgrade to first or business class, you might actually get some food. If you’re flying coach, we’ve got airport grab ‘n go ideas that might make that cramped seat a little more bearable.

Flying First Class: What to Order
“Well, of course, avoid really salty foods and stay hydrated. You’ll often see frequent business travelers sleeping through food service because rest is more important to them,” she says. “But for the rest of us, I’d say that homier dishes tend to translate well to the galley kitchens.”

Her recommendations:

  • Complicated dishes – avoid
  • Pasta dishes – order
  • Beef tenderloin – avoid (tricky to cook right)
  • Salmon dishes – order*
  • Chicken – order*
  • Wine – order (the selection on American, especially on their Europe routes is excellent)

*Brussat does note that chicken and salmon range in quality based on the caterer and country of origin. Our tip: When in doubt, ask the flight attendant for his or her favorite entrée.

Flying Coach: O’Hare Tips
What about the rest of us, left to forage at the airport for something tasty to grab and eat on the plane? Brussat, of course, brings something yummy from Convito when she’s riding in coach. But what if you don’t have time to swing through Wilmette?

Tortas Frontera
Luckily, Rick Bayless now has outposts in both Terminals 1 and 3 at O’Hare. Check out Tortas Frontera, where you’ll often find a line of savvy travelers and Top Chef fans waiting for their hot Milanesa or Smoky Garlic Shrimp Torta ($9-12), Corn and Poblano Chowder ($4.50) or Taqueria Salad with creamy avocado-lime dressing and chipotle chicken or smoked pork ($8.50-11.50). Breakfast items include griddle-baked egg sandwiches ($8.50-9), a fabulous Queso & Jam Torta ($5), and a yogurt bar. Don’t forget the Margaritas! Even for a recent 8 a.m. flight, the bar was rockin’.

Berghoff Café
Terminal 1 C concourse has Berhoff Café, and we can’t say enough about the sandwiches. Hand-carved corned beef or turkey—it’s like the Thanksgiving leftover sandwich you wish you could make. ($9-11) The panini-pressed Reuben also has many fans based on the orders around us in the always busy line. Beverages include the popular Berghoff beer on tap.

If you go with one of these options, you won’t feel as bad about missing the celebrity chef-inspired dining that’s taking place in First.

Chefs’ Conclave Civilizing Air Travel
When it first started in 1989, American Airlines Chefs’ Conclave brought together famous chefs from around the country—including Wolfgang Puck, Larry Forgione, Alice Waters and Bradley Ogden—for a yearly meeting to discuss how to bring the restaurant experience to first class and coach dining. Perks included multiple first-class tickets anywhere American flew and all-expenses paid meetings for the participants.

Projects were assigned, but many of the heavy-hitting chefs did not seem to take it seriously. Still, it was great publicity for the airline. But after 9/11, the world of flight was indelibly altered; airlines slashed flights and services, and the Conclave started eliminating chefs.

Cut to 2012, and there are three chefs still standing: Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing from Dallas, American’s home base, and our own Nancy Brussat.

“I was amazed I was still included,” said the petite Brussat, shaking her head. “But I always came (to the meetings) with ideas; I did my homework. I took it seriously when many did not.” And, she says that her food translated to the unforgiving kitchens in the sky.

That meant dishes like a savory Italian beef stew topped with a semolina Gnocchi alla Romana (once the signature dish for the daily Chicago to Rome flight) or her delicious Garden Lasagna were hits, able to withstand the many variables that reduced other chefs’ dishes to mush.

Brussat recalled a charming encounter of the food kind. “This is embarrassing, but I was actually on a flight not too long ago, sitting in First Class, and the gentleman sitting across from me was finishing his lasagna and pretty much licking his plate. He told the flight attendant that it was the best thing he’d ever eaten on an airplane, and she told him that it was my recipe! I was both flattered and a little horrified, but it was really nice.”

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