When JetBlue hired Brad Farmerie to design the airline’s first business class menu in 2014, the chef didn’t bother to study airplane food. “I didn’t want to be daunted by what the onboard cooking possibilities looked like,” he says, “I was going to make sure our headline dishes got onboard.”
For the executive chef of New York’s swanky, meaty Saxon + Parole, that includes a dry-aged beef burger topped with Havarti and bacon relish at 30,000 feet. “It’s a real burger, not one of those wimpy nebulous patties,” Farmerie says. JetBlue’s “Mint” class flyers get lobster poached in a corn custard with pickled chili peppers and French toast with figs and toasted pecans. A watermelon salad with feta, basil, and the nutty crunch of pumpkin seeds. Fontina-stuffed gnocchi, black truffle crostini. Cold carrot and ginger soup. Brooklyn’s hippest ice cream. Portobello mushroom mousse with whiskey jelly. Oxtail pot roast.
Eating this well usually means spending $1,500 to fly first class across the country, but JetBlue charges half that, or less, for Mint. Yes, Mint is still a luxury service. But if JetBlue can make it work on a big enough scale to put pressure on its larger competitors, it might incentivize some much needed competition and innovation, and make flying better for everybody.
“If airlines are given an incentive to provide better meals—like if a carrier were to decide to do something radically different—the industry could change quickly,” says Richard Foss, a food historian and author of Food in the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies. “The actual cost of better food is relatively small but there would need to be more major competitors.”
Since launching Mint on flights between JFK and LAX in 2014, JetBlue has expanded the service to twelve routes all over the US and the Caribbean, and plans to keep adding new locations through 2018. If it can keep that momentum going, it might be able to reach the tipping point that Foss says could make competitors “look at JetBlue and say ‘these people are stealing our lunch.’”
Scaling up won’t be easy. Installing lie-flat seats and big entertainment screens on more planes is one thing. Taking the dining experience global is another. Farmerie’s job isn’t just to match the output of the world’s first class cabins. It’s stuffing the masses with the fanciest of burgers.
Virgin America had similar ambitions when it crashed the party with its rock star persona, party lights, and customizable entertainment systems. Those bold moves may have inspired some change—individual screens pre-loaded with shows and movies are now standard on long-haul flights—but the Virgin struggled financially. Budget carrier Alaska Airlines bought it earlier this year.
Why the Food’s Bad
Before going any further, let’s explain why airplane food has had the same lousy reputation since the 1980s. One part is stinginess, understandable in an industry with tiny profit margins. Another is that most food comes from the same few industrial catering kitchens. Airlines often partner with fancy chefs to plan menus, but catering chefs do the day-to-day grunt work of churning out meals for a bunch of carriers.
Then there’s the combination of cabin pressure, altitude, and dry air that knocks out roughly 30 percent of a person’s sense of taste, Farmerie says. Salt can fill that gap, but a heavy pour can create the over-processed texture people associate with plane food.
Farmerie fights back against all of it with righteous pickiness. JetBlue chefs have their own lockers full of his favorite nonperishable ingredients: Forvm-brand vinegars from Spain; spices from La Boîte, a small shop in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen; Maldon salt. When Farmerie saw his chefs doling out spices with measuring spoons, he put gram scales on the countertops.
The chef relies on vinegar and earthy root spices to cut through airplane-induced malaise without going too salty. That’s why he serves his ribeye with a balsamic-ginger reduction. The citrus tang of grapefruit and Thai chili makes for poached salmon that’s bright, “not just this big, salty explosion which makes you feel dehydrated and horrible,” he says.
The airplane galley presents a different challenge. Safety regulations mandate the glorified toaster oven run at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for exactly 15 minutes.
JetBlue’s in-air prep stations don’t have running water or refrigerators, so flight attendants store perishables in coolers packed with dry ice. That saves space and weight, but requires they time meal service so the food is the right temperature when it goes into the oven for re-heating. Farmerie got around these problems from the ground, training his cooks in the art of sous vide, so they can par-cook meals to the perfect amount of partial doneness without losing moisture. That keeps meat tender, even after flight attendants heat it up while aloft.
JetBlue’s focus on local, quality ingredients gets harder to maintain as Mint expands. At first, “We had a lot of New York providers and were very New York-focused,” says Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s head of marketing. Shipping perishable ingredients is expensive and inefficient, especially when you’re talking about 28-day dry-aged beef from your favorite New York butcher.
So JetBlue started sourcing ingredients local to its different routes. (Larger carriers like American Airlines do the same). When Mint reached the Caribbean, Farmerie dropped the fancy cows for pan-seared flying fish and ginger-marinated shrimp, both abundant in Barbados. The carrier switched its minty “welcome drink” to a rum cocktail, à la island vibes.
Making Luxury Efficient
Plenty of airlines throw down extra dollars for the fancy tools and exotic ingredients that make first class menus pop. American Airlines sources many of its ingredients locally and does a lot of sous vide cooking. European carriers started the trend of having celebrity chefs redesign stagnant menus and drum up hype; US carriers have followed suit. Manhattan restaurant mogul Danny Meyer brought Blue Smoke ribs to Delta’s business class. But JetBlue stands out for doing all that at a significantly lower price.
The airline keeps costs down by putting the effort where it matters most. Serving the food on actual dishes with silverware—instead of shrink-wrapped plastic trays—is costly and cumbersome for flight attendants. JetBlue bothers because “people eat first with their eyes,” says Farmerie. But because passengers are usually distracted just after boarding, the crew serves boozy “welcome cocktails” in plastic cups. Nobody really notices, they’re just happy to imbibe while the cattle file into coach.
The illusion of constant luxury, JetBlue’s Perry says, relies on timing. After test runs in mock Mint cabins, Perry and his team realized passengers were most antsy while waiting for someone to take their order. Now, flight attendants ask them what they want to eat right away, and hold the orders until meal time. At least one crew member floats between Mint and economy, helping wherever they’re needed. “It reminds me of an old jazz quote about how drummers are the ones you don’t notice,” says Perry. “It’s only when they make a mistake that you notice them.”
JetBlue may be hiding the details, but it’s proudly displaying the map that tracks Mint’s spreading domain. The paradox is that every new location demands a new menu, a new approach to finding, cooking, and serving the perfect meal. But since Mint routes are some of the company’s most profitable—with revenues up 20 percent since the program began—JetBlue won’t slow the expansion anytime soon. The question is whether Mint can keep up—and maybe someday bring that burger to the back of the plane.