Before you enjoy your next meal on board a United flight, you might be surprised to learn about all the work that goes into it—right up to the moment it hits your tray table. Behind every inflight meal are hundreds of kitchens and thousands of culinary professionals worldwide who have worked to design, test, and serve you the best ingredients available, prepared to precise quality standards and engineered for an optimal dining experience.
Leading these efforts at United is Studio Ellen. In partnership with global airline catering company gategroup, Studio Ellen is a unique “culinary think tank” and test kitchen where gategroup’s veteran chefs concoct world-class recipes, taste-test new flavors, and train flight attendants on how to plate and serve each one. As part of a recent MileagePlus® Cardmember event, a small group of United Chase Card members got an exclusive chance to peek behind the galley curtain and learn how the sausage (or the sous vide short rib) is made.
Named after Ellen Church—who served with United and was the first woman flight attendant in 1930—Studio Ellen is the recently launched center of United’s global culinary development program, led by Executive Chef Olivier De Busschere. From a specially designed office space in downtown Chicago, De Busschere and Studio Ellen’s crack culinary team work alongside menu planners and other groups throughout the operation to plan everything that goes into the always-evolving menus served on board to United travelers.
That process doesn’t only involve deciding which dishes to put on the menu; it’s also about leading a continuous effort to design each course from start to finish, including incorporating locally available ingredients, working within the capabilities of the local kitchens for each route, and filming instructional videos to train flight attendants on plating technique, tasting notes, and more.
“From start to finish, it takes about six months to design the menu for a single route,” De Busschere says.
Through countless hours of testing, tasting, and traveler feedback, however, a few rules of thumb stand out. Notably, seasoning and spice levels need to be elevated: Our sense of taste is known to be blunted at cruising altitude, so most recipes need to kick it up a notch. It’s also widely understood that protein-cooked sous vide tends to perform best in the air, but Studio Ellen chefs have had success thinking outside the box and incorporating pasta or garnishes to provide the perfect final touch.
“The process involves a lot of learning and understanding what is possible in different regions of the world,” De Busschere says, in terms of ingredients, kitchen capabilities, and local palates. “That’s what I love about this job: working with people all over the world.”
Guests in attendance at the MileagePlus Cardmember event got to learn all about this process and more during a Q&A session with De Busschere and the team at Studio Ellen. They even got to sample some new dishes, prepared on-site just for the occasion.
“I didn’t realize the precision that the chefs need to go through to design a menu that works across all regions—managing the weight, the flavors, the suppliers,” says Igor Trifonov, who attended the event. “It’s this multidimensional equation—so to come up with something that’s delicious at the end of it all makes me appreciate it that much more.”
Learn more about exclusive United Cardmember events like this one and discover other unique opportunities at united.com/cardevents.