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Celebrity Gastronomy at 35,000 Feet

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- People like to complain about airline food, making endless jokes of its second-rate quality and cardboard texture. But that's not necessarily the case at the front of the plane, with airlines using celebrity chefs to make their business- and first-class menus into culinary experiences that try to re-create aviation's more luxurious past. Anyone who had the privilege to fly the Concorde in its final years, for instance, savored the work of the three-star Michelin chef of the Plaza Athene and Monte Carlo's Louis XV overseeing a menu of black truffles, fresh Normandy lobsters and scoops of caviar served on Chirstofle silverware.

Today's airlines follow a similar model, allowing star chefs to create fine-dining experiences that, while directed by celebrity chefs, are cooked by outside catering staff -- and often readied alongside the food for economy class.

On certain flights, at least at the front of the plane, there's little reason to complain about airline food.

The key to getting better food is creating recipes that travel from institutional kitchen to on-board cooking galley with ease. Training catering and airline staff on proper storage and presentation can make the difference between a marvelous culinary experience and a meal of still-frozen foam on elaborate seafood dishes -- well-meant but lost in translation.

Knowing that the key to fine in-air meals is equal parts science and culinary art, American Airlines operates a chef's conclave for brainstorming recipes that includes such culinary titans as Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Nancy Brussat. On its Japan routes, it enlisted Sam Choy as a consulting chef, and he's devised an innovative menu of crabmeat soups, edamame hummus and pita and wok-barbecued shrimp on a vegetable ratatouille.

United Airlines partners with Chicago's famous Charlie Trotter, who collaborates with the airline's corporate executive chef to create menus for its International First meal offerings. The result is one of the most impressive of any U.S. airline, with such dishes as crispy crabcake and braised endive with goat cheese followed by grilled sea bass with apricot curry sauce. The airline recently re-enlisted the service of Trader Vic's restaurants, which it partnered with more than 30 years ago for in-flight cuisine on its South Pacific flying routes. Today, flights to and from Hawaii, Bangkok, Singapore, Taipei, Japan and Beijing are offered retro Polynesian specialties such as Mongolian shredded chicken and mai tai cocktails.

Delta Airlines has enlisted Miami-based chef Michelle Bernstein to whip up Cuban-inspired dishes for its intercontinental and transcontinental flights for Business Elite and first-class passengers. Even on its non-Miami bound domestic and international flights, her famous cuisine is offered in an in-flight setting with dishes like those in her award-winning South Florida restaurants, including Michy's and Sr. Martinez. Delta also pairs the menus with wines selected by its master sommelier, Andrea Robinson, including Napa and Spanish wines as well as premium French champagnes.

In terms of international carriers: Singapore Airlines maintains a culinary panel of eight world-renowned chefs and three wine consultants for its premium in-flight culinary offerings. The chefs are from various countries and include the U.K.'s Gordon Ramsay, Sydney's Matthew Moran, Singapore's Sam Leong of Tung Lok and Japanese sushi chef Yoshihiro Murata.

On the Aussie front, Qantas has long worked with Neil Perry, the chef behind Sydney's famous Rockpool. For more than 15 years Perry has been the consulting chef for the airline, creating a selection of 12 main courses and an eight-course prix-fixe option unique to the airline. Competition can be had down under via Richard Branson's Virgin Australia, which signed up its own cooking celeb with Luke Mangan of Sydney's Glass and The Palace Melbourne. Mangan oversees a three-course lunch and dinner menu for the business-class cabin as well as in Premium Economy and Economy classes.

But leave it to Air France to offer perhaps the world's preeminent dining experience with its "Studio Culinaire Servair," which leans on the talent of three nations' cooking treasures to create its La Premiere menu, exclusive to its intercontinental first-class cabin. Studio Culinaire Servair is led by 30-star Michelin chef Joel Robuchon with the help of Le Grand Vefour's Guy Martin and Jacques Le Divellec, who create a seasonal six-course menu on demand to passengers throughout the flight to be polished off with deserts from Paris' Lenotre and a wine list from grand sommelier Olivier Poussier to wash it all down.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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