MIAMI— Air France passengers looking for an upgraded dining experience on board were granted their wish earlier this month as the company kicked off its “À la Carte” service for long-haul flights departing from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The offering—a pre-order upcharge from the regular economy or premium economy meals—is the result of the collaboration between the airline and chef Jean Imbert, a recent Top Chef winner and rising star in the world of French cuisine.
Last week, Imbert took to the skies with the Air France, offering a surprise service on a flight from Paris to New York City, after which he sat down with Airways to talk about the process of getting the meals on to aircraft and some of the challenges he faces in building the offering.
A premium dining option in the economy cabin is relatively uncommon on airlines today. In building its offering, Air France did not want to simply extend the business class meal further through the cabin. Imbert explained that part of the reasoning for the difference is related to the service timing, noting that “in business class, you have more time for the service, but this is not the case.” Indeed, the service comes along with the other economy dining options just like a dietary special meal. Still, Imbert explained that the meal design process is relatively similar to the premium cabin meals.
To design the food is quite the same as we do in business, because we create the best product that we can with the price that they give us. We have to know that in flight, salty [flavor] is very difficult to taste, and crispy [texture] is not possible. I like this because it is just like Top Chef: The more difficult it gets, the more you have to think.
And here was plenty of thinking, planning, and effort that went in. Imbert worked with Air France and Servair (the company responsible for Air France’s catering at CDG) for eighteen months, preparing for the launch of the service.
He is keen to offer great food and to protect his personal brand, especially as it is a paid premium option for passengers, “My name is on the plate so I want to make sure that again and again and again that it is the same. I don’t want to look on Twitter and see ‘I ate Jean Imbert and it is no good.” The first iteration of the menu includes an organic quinoa salad with a poached egg, a warm stew main course and a fruit fondant dessert inspired by the dish he made in the Top Chef finale to secure the victory.
He is also very aware of the unique circumstances surrounding Air France’s willingness to partner with such a young chef for its in-flight dining menus. He is not a Michelin three-star chef and knows that the draw for passengers may be different, as is the approach to the food. “We both like nice food, but it is a different way of thinking” is how he describes it. And given the target market—economy class passengers versus premium travelers—this different approach hold strong potential for success.