Gate Gourmet caters to international travelers’ in-flight tastes

The in-flight catering company prepares meals for foreign carriers flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson
Chef Molly Brandt, Executive Chef of Culinary Innovation for North America at gategroup, explains In-flight dishes prepared for a tasting event at Gate Gourmet, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Atlanta.  (Hyosub Shin / AJC)



Chef Molly Brandt, Executive Chef of Culinary Innovation for North America at gategroup, explains In-flight dishes prepared for a tasting event at Gate Gourmet, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

At the Gate Gourmet kitchen at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, about 200 employees work daily to transform hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, cheeses and meats into in-flight meals for international departures out of Atlanta.

Airline food used to be the butt of jokes, when rubbery chicken and squishy pasta were the standard at every coach seat in decades past.

Now, there are far fewer complimentary meals on domestic flights — but in first class, business class and international cabins, in-flight meals have become a distinguishing factor as airlines compete against each other globally with fancier fare and celebrity chefs.

The shift started before the COVID-19 pandemic, when U.S. airlines “were very much competing not only with each other, but also with the internationals,” said Jens Kuhlen, Gategroup’s president for North America. Foreign carriers known for high-end service that fly to the United States “are creating a certain expectation with the customer.”

Then, the pandemic caused international travel to plummet and prompted airlines to cut back. But they’ve since resumed full menus amid a post-pandemic rebound in passenger demand.

That has led to “this climb again” toward more innovative food, Kuhlen said.

“It cannot just always be the short rib,” he said

At Gate Gourmet, a subsidiary of Zurich, Switzerland-based food and hospitality company Gategroup, Molly Brandt as executive chef of culinary innovation for North America is responsible for staying on top of culinary innovations and dreaming up new menus. The company also uses technology from data science firm Black Swan Media to scan social media and predict future food trends.

Gate Gourmet was once the in-flight caterer for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, but the carrier switched to French inflight caterer Newrest and Atlanta-based Goldbergs Group subsidiary Mainline Aviation at its Atlanta hub, as it refashioned meal service coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Delta still contracts with Gate Gourmet for in-flight catering at many other locations around the world.

Gate Gourmet now serves foreign carriers in Atlanta including Air France, British Airways and Qatar Airways.

The company’s 72,000-square-foot facility on Charles W. Grant Parkway has a hot and cold kitchen and a halal process kitchen, about a mile from the airport ramp where meals are delivered to the plane with specialized vehicles. There, it prepares an average of 4,800 meals a day for about seven daily flights, with multiple meals served on many of the flights.

In Atlanta, Brandt’s menu ideas include Southern influences on international dishes, with Georgia-produced ingredients like Spotted Trotter salami and Sweet Grass Dairy farm cheese aged in Gate City Brewing Co. Terminus Porter.

Coca-Cola barbecue sauce-glazed meatloaf Brandt prepared for a tasting has both Southern flair and can be adapted into other versions, she said.

BBQ Meatloaf, pimento macaroni and cheese, beans and greens, Coca-Cola BBQ glaze, fresh slaw. Chef Molly Brandt prepared a tasting of proposed In-flight dishes at Gate Gourmet, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Atlanta.  (Hyosub Shin / AJC)


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“You still have to bring in this element of what is interesting from both perspectives —from a North American’s perspective and, let’s say, the home country’s perspective,” Brandt said. “Because usually there’s a mix of demographics that are flying in that in that particular route.”

It “requires a ton of research,” Brandt said. She calls friends who are from the country the airline is flying in from, and asks them, “‘What do you miss? ... What is it that your mom made? What is it that you miss eating on the street?’”

She conceptualizes in-flight dishes and prepares tasting menus for airline officials who are in charge of deciding what gets served on flights — and taking into consideration everything from the cost to how to procure the ingredients to how the meal will taste after it’s reheated on the plane.

International business class passengers might pay thousands of dollars for a flight, and have grown to expect elevated dining at their seat. But there are plenty of challenges to creating fine dining in the sky that is similar to what can be found in high-end restaurants.

For one thing, altitude and pressurization on the plane can dull the taste buds.

“I like to make sure that there’s a lot of umami, I like to make sure we have a lot of acid that’s happening there,” Brandt said.

Supply chain problems during the pandemic also forced many catering companies to find alternative vendors.

“The idea of getting everything from any part of the world because it basically can be produced in bigger batches and thereby less costs — that is probably long gone,” Kuhlen said.

Other issues that restrict in-flight menu choices are that meals are prepared a day in advance of the flight and then chilled, there’s limited capacity for reheating trays in plane galleys, knife restrictions on planes and food safety standards for in-flight meals that affect how a steak can be prepared, for example.

What Brandt is aiming for is an in-flight meal that will “perform and be bulletproof, no matter how long it’s going to be heated up.” That’s because even if a meal is supposed to be heated in the aircraft galley oven for 20 minutes, “if there’s turbulence, all of a sudden it’s in there for 40,” she said.