American Airlines Brings in the Big Knives to Save Airline Food

D Magazine

by Kristin Hart

Today the Milestone Culinary Arts Center was the place to be. That’s where American Airlines hosted the ultimate chef showdown. You may have seen the boot-scootin’-execuchef Dean Fearing at Fearing’s and the mild-mannered uber chef Stephan Pyles at Stephan Pyles (I love them both but couldn’t they come up with more original names for their restaurants?) but when was the last time you witnessed them go head-to-head in an Iron Chef-type competition? For me, it was a first. Jump to find out whose cuisine reigned supreme…..

First, the rules. AA challenged the chefs to create three dishes, each with a different protein that could be served to first and business class passengers. The judges: Leigh Ann Vernon-BNSF Railway Company; Mike Malone-Richards Group; David O’Shaughnessy-Americas Sofitel. The chefs were given 30 minutes to make each dish that would be served to the judges while the rest of us looked on, drooling and resenting the hand-picked, AA premier customers(hey, we’re important too!)

Back in the kitchen that was swarming with AA staff, cameras and reporters, the chefs took to the stoves with their loyal sous chefs by their side. Fearing first dished up his chicken coconut bisque with sizzling rice. As he spoke about his creation, Fearing said he had crafted something “that would stimulate the taste buds” unlike like the rubber chicken often seen in flight.

As servers scooped up the bowls to take out to the judges, Pyles looked less than thrilled. He’d already plated and realized his food would sit for 5, maybe 10 minutes, before going out to the judges. No worries. Pyles took it in stride and replated his adobo glazed roasted chicken with smoked mozzarella-Peruvian potato salad and coconut-curry sauce a minute before they were whisked away.

The judges oohed and aahed, as each dish was set before them by AA flight attendants. Judge Vernon spoke about how very comforting both dishes were and joked that she needed a nap after sipping the rich and creamy bisque.

Round two focused on seafood and this time, Pyles plated first. He sent out a beautifully plated red snapper with black bean prosciutto refrito, aji creamed corn sauce and crab-mango ceviche, while Fearing, sporting his kickin’ cowboy boots, plated a barbecue shrimp taco with mango pickled red onion salad. I’m pretty sure I saw one judge wipe her nose and another comment that his sinuses were clearing up after this round. A bit too spicy perhaps?

The competition drew to a close with the piece de résistance, beef. Fearing served his palm sugar “mopped” tenderloin of beef on Anson Mills polenta, deviled egg and spinach salad with warm bacon/blue cheese vinaigrette (I think almost every ingredient was in the name) Now, readers, since I was lurking in the kitchen hoping for a photo op, chef Fearing was kind enough to give me a quick bite and man, oh, man…after I floated back into my body I was overcome with disappointment that I hadn’t been able to try the rest of his dishes.

Pyles served his final entrée: roast tenderloin with dried cherry chipotle sauce and sweet potato chilaquiles. Now that’s what the recipe said, but I swear he said it had a pineapple mole on top. Fruity either way, I guess.

I’m sure you’re all dying to find out who the winner was, so I’ll spill. A hush fell over the crowd (what started as maybe 40 had dwindled down to about 15 after 3 hours) as the judge’s decision was announced. And the winner was….. the customers? After coming up with high scores for both competitors, the judges were locked and determined that both chef Pyles’ and chef Fearing’s dishes were phenomenal. They deemed the winners to be the AA customers who could be enjoying this food as early as September. Let’s just hope the cooks at AA do as great of a job as these two chefs did today. Hmm…what are the chances?