July 24, 1978 | About Gael

Pie in the Sky

          Don’t you ever get bored with the repetitious honk of Paul Bocuse? Friends ask. Aren’t you weary of all that sauce choron, the endless parade of goat cheese, the chickens wrapped in pigs’ bladders?

          Impossible. As if one could be bored with the sunset or a ripe pear. There can never be enough pampering or digestive indulgence for me. So when TWA announced it would inaugurate its new Tristar flight to London with three great French chefs cooking aloft…I knew it was a classic publicity stunt, but for $313 one way, I couldn’t resist.

          Visions of great chefs in each galley deglazing butter-slicked birds 35,000 feet over Gander haunted my tuna-fish lunches. I imagined the flamboyant Bocuse -- truffles bouncing in the turbulence -- wrapping the entire first-class cabin in a flaky pastry croute; envisioned Roger Vergé, the dimpled sorcerer-genius of Mougins, perfuming the air with ethereal sauces; saw myself blissed to sleep in a rain of petits fours and bonbons scattered fore and aft by Gaston Lenôtre, legendary pastry master and candy man of Paris. There were even hints (well, no one at TWA would deny it) that this exercise might herald a metamorphosis in that airline’s overseas feeding.

          There’s not much left to be said about the sensory insult of eating aloft. Long ago, I abandoned flying’s inevitable steamed steak and leather chicken for abstinence. On overseas jaunts, I taxi to Kennedy by way of Zabar’s (for a shopping-bag picnic). The return flight is infinitely enhanced by emergency supplies of smoked salmon, tropical fruit, zesty terrines, and odds and ends en gelée from Fauchon, the Tiffany of delicatessens. In matters of serious gastronomy, most airlines are concentrating on sardines. How tightly can they pack us? Cabin attendants run relay races and need advanced degrees in garbology to make it, gasping, to seat-belt safety by landing.

          But TWA needed a hook for its augural ballyhoo. “In book sales, cooking runs ahead of sex and sex runs ahead of the Bible,” TWA vice-president Don Casey pointed out. “I can’t explain it. I’m not a food person.”

          Bocuse had some fine ambitions about airline catering. Dollars, headlines…pie in the sky…names columned by Suzy. What more could anyone want? Once the three chefs had seduced TWA’s top brass at a dinner of 62 dishes, they were flown to New York for a quick course in the logistics of in-flight feeding. Nothing could discourage the great chefs of Franc -- not microwave ovens, not storage limitations, not the harsh reality of commissary stacking (desserts could not be taller than one and a half inches). Plans for a tomato sorbet were abandoned. It would melt. The paper place mat must go! But cloth hanging over the tray edge would bollix the rolling carts. Five TWA feeding mavens with stopwatches counted as the chefs and their press attaché, Yanou Collart, struggled to fit three knives, three forks, two glasses, and three plates on a tray smaller than the Daily News.

          Then the stars flew home with a stock of TWA’s china-doll dishes to perfect the menu. Chicken was abandoned for fear the sauce would dry up in the radar sizzle. A prototype of boeuf à l’ancienne was forwarded from France to Kansas City to see how it would survive in-flight trauma. Transatlantic phone bills mounted. Every day, there was another crisis. Two tons of food would arrive with the chefs the Saturday before the Tuesday flight…everything color-coded: green for dry goods, yellow for refrigerated items, red for the deep freeze. Customs officers must be buttered up to a benign docility. The commissary union had to be wooed too, and celebrities recruited to join the international gaggle of food writers and chefs’ groupies signed on for the flight.

          Advance menu texts went out, inciting some cynicism. “It sounds all cooked ahead to me,” sniffed fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert. “I’m not sure I’m going to like cucumber in sweet-and-sour sauce.” But Mrs. Lambert, whose credentials include second prize at the 1977 March of Dimes cookoff in Atlanta, said she’d reserve judgment. “I’ll go anytime I can get a free flight to London,” she confided.

          Just as Roger Vergé had finished braising 260 portions of boeuf a l’ancienne in his three-star kitchen overlooking Cannes, word arrived that the Food and Drug Administration would not permit the beef to enter for fear of hoof-and-mouth disease. Two hundred chickens of Bresse were instantly relieved of their suprêmes -- the delicate blue-white breast meat—to be rolled and stuffed and frozen for the flight. That afternoon, French customs officials went on strike. In New York, TWA publicity consultant Betsy Eagles got her first gray hair. Another $289 went into transatlantic phone calls.

          Now nothing could stop the gears of publicity. The three musketeers arrived. All weekend they were lionized by chosen gourmands of New York. The skies rained macaroons by LeNôtre. And the euphoric trio were photographed and televised -- starched white chef’s coats adorned with 22-karat-gold buttons, hand-sculpted in the shape of truffles for the event. When the airline union refused to let LeNôtre’s crew into the kitchen to start preparation on Monday, the cooks retreated to the Hotel Pierre to blanch the asparagus.

          There were low patches of fog in the parking lot as the chefs arrived at the airport Tuesday with an entourage of press and television cameras, in a lightning of photoflash. Since almost everything had been prepared days before in France, the mythic master cooks were reduced to slicing, unfolding plastic wrap, stacking trays. The lowest apprentice trims the crust from the brioche in LeNôtre’s giant catering kitchen. Now the crust trimmer was LeNôtre himself. And there was much to do. Not enough time. Bocuse’s traveling companion -- a wholesome brunette -- slipped into a commissary lab coat and started peeling tomatoes. Vergé himself brushed each round of foie gras with a Sauternes jelly glaze. And there were smirks and snickers as a photographer focused on a commissary notice reminding the crew to pack melba rounds, chickpeas, and fried onion rings for the unprivileged standard flights.

          And then a crisis. Commissary director William McCreary gasped as Bocuse assembled the cheese plates. There was a small straw stuck in each button of goat cheese. “It’s too high,” cried McCreary, whipping a tiny ruler out of his pocket. He measured. And sighed with relief. “Just makes it.”

          “Of course,” press attaché Collart retorted. “We had someone back in France just to snip each straw to the correct measure.”

          “We’re moving out, men,” McCreary instructed his crew. “In 27 minutes, ready or not.”

          As the chariots rolled toward the runway, the passengers were already assembling in the TWA terminal for a champagne sendoff. The cooks raced to that kitchen and began to stuff tartlets -- frog dumplings and quail eggs on green sauce. Periodically the lights would dim for a filmstrip promoting the upcoming film Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, narrated by Bocuse himself. Publicity incest. How delicious!

          At last, aboard. The raspberry-perfumed champagne has gone down as easily as cherry pop, pacifying some passengers for a rough bout of turbulence aloft. Even the stewards were strapped in as the plane danced sideways for more than an hour. “This is no way to toss a salad,” a British newsman protested. Dinner at midnight was almost anticlimax. Passengers anticipating a great restaurant experience were doomed to disappointment. There was no room for first-class carts to feed 230…so the first three courses were presented all at once on a napkined tray. And the chicken was, as predicted, severely humbled by exposure to the radar waves.

          But the foie gras was rich enough to give at least one passenger an authentic attack of gout. The lobster terrine, with its delicate mousse of sole and caviar sauce, survived the ordeal admirably. The truffle-studded salad suffered only slightly in its proletarian presentation. And a raspberry jellyroll by LeNôtre is not to be sneered at. There were snide remarks about the plastic-wrapped cheese -- but cheese that ripe would have run amok otherwise. The raisin-and-nut-studded bread of Paris’s master bread maker Poilane was glorious, as always. But macaroons did not rain down. There were only three…perfection, of course. And chocolates. All that bouncing around may have done something wonderful to the Château Lascombes’72—it was infinitely better than anyone expected. One voyager grumbled he would have preferred two pistachio nuts and a sleeping pill. But a newsman from Kansas City reportedly wished the plane would never land.

          The cabin crew wore new uniforms by Ralph Lauren, handsome and seriously military, with neckties for both sexes -- and no one got a tie into the “soup,” as feared. “I feel so French,” thrilled a Midwestern stewardess as one of the chefs patted her derrière. But by landing time everything had gotten back to normal. “There’s so much garbage that we’re not prepared for,” she cried. TWA won’t say how much it cost to generate that much garbage. The airline normally spends $4 on each overseas tourist meal. I still think a great picnic is the way to eat on a plane. And the great chefs of France could choreograph it.

          Still, there are purists who insist that caviar is the only food aloft fit for man or beast. Eavesdropping on the home-bound flight, TWA public-relations chief Don Rosendale was unsettled to hear three inaugural-flight returnees comparing TWA’s standard first-class fare with the chefs’ Tristar revel. “They seemed happy with our everyday caviar and rack of lamb -- maybe happier. At first I was insulted,” he said. “but then I realized it was a compliment.” So no Bocusian revisions are contemplated for now. But Rosendale, loath to say never, quickly adds, “We still have an open mind.”

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