A James Beard Award Now Signals ‘Good Enough For Airline Catering’

When Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group started popping up in airports and putting its brand on Delta Air Lines meals I suggested it was trading its name and accepting lower quality. It had a brand to cash out on, but the brand meant less as a result. This is going to be true for any chef who enters an airport or licenses their name to an airline – except for Rick Bayless.

For an airline, branding with a chef’s name can signal their investment in food. It’s marketing to communicate to customers that they care about quality, not just spending part of their food budget on a name rather than quality. However for the chef it signals less of a concern with quality.

Before the pandemic American Airlines launched a James Beard Foundation partnership and that’s expanded recently. I haven’t had a chance to try the James Beard Foundation domestic first class meals yet, but a reader passes one along – and I think it makes my point about how the airline and the endorser trade reputations.

The reader thought the sauce on the chicken was quite good, though not at all Mediterranean (and neither were the fingerling potatoes) which seems odd given the pairing with hummus. On the other hand, there’s a bread plate. That’s progress!

There’s no question that the James Beard Foundation used to have some cache’, but now that they are putting their names on airline domestic meals, devaluing the whole enterprise. A James Beard award-winning chef now means ‘good enough for airline catering’.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I have to respectfully disagree. I’ve tried that dish, which is available for preorder on AA, and it was excellent all three times I’ve had it to date…out of Miami, Dallas and Phoenix. In fact, I wrote a rare complimentary email to the CK desk. If you’ve had a meal on a 3 hour Delta or United domestic flight recently you would be singing AA’s praises.

  2. I’m inclined to suspect that @JD is correct, though I haven’t tried the dish – UA/DL domestic F catering is abominable, and merely being half a notch above “edible” would make this dish a standout among US carriers. It’s not lost on me how pathetic this sounds; but the fact remains…

  3. I admittedly haven’t been on AA in a minute, but Delta was slower in fixing their catering coming out of covid, but all the food I’ve had recently has been solid to good.

    UA on the other hand was dismal on a LAX-EWR transcon a few months back.

  4. The current AA first class | business class menu and meal quality are heads and shoulders above DL before the pandemic. DL and UA are dragging their feet. I look forward to the return of “American Bistro” buy on board with this new flair.

  5. JD is absolutely right. I just had that meal and I was not even hungry and I finished it all. It was absolutely perfect. and I look forward to ordering this again. The person seating next to me was so sad to see his food and then mine. It may not look amazing in pictures or just served. But it’s a solid solid email

  6. @Gary although the presentation could be much better, the point of the partnership was for simpler and healthier yet tasty dishes, and indeed this was very tasty and didn’t feel fatty and greasy like AA meals usually do. Finally an AA domestic first meal that makes me not have to worry about eating before my flight.

  7. I’m not criticizing this meal, I haven’t tasted it! My point, and this isn’t about American as such, is that when a food brand partners with an airline they denigrate themselves *while elevating the airline*. That’s true for Danny Meyer and for James Beard Foundation (and was true for Charlie Trotter back in the day).

  8. Tasted good is a good standard for airplane, but James Beard should be a cohesive dish, and that is not a cohesive dish.

  9. Some, including the post’s author, are, unfortunately, missing the marketing goals behind this. I don’t think any realistic, experienced flyer is expecting a full, restaurant sized meal by any award-winning chef on a 3 hour US domestic flight…simply not realistic to think the airline is going to spend $50-$75 for such a meal. As a number of the respondents have noted, AA is, however, delivering a highly unique, healthy, very tasty meal under this program. In one of the cities I mentioned in my original post above, the meal led me to choose a restaurant led by a James Beard award winning chef for dinner. Did the James Beard marketing work? Absolutely! Btw, I’m eating at another one in my home town of Miami tonight. Try the meal next time you are on AA, then comment. In the meantime I give AA and the James Beard org high marks for an excellent menu item and outstanding marketing.

  10. Not anything special…hummus and veggie sticks. Would have ratheres a pre-pandemic international business class salad. Chicken was dry and potatoes were bland.

Comments are closed.