United Bringing Back Charlie Trotter’s Ghost to Rethink Meal Service in Both Economy and Premium Cabins

United wants to brand its meals with the halo of chef Charlie Trotter. Chicago culinary legend Trotter passed away, of course, in 2013. So they’re partnering with “alumni chefs of Charlie Trotter’s legendary Chicago restaurant and their culinary peers” instead.

Cue United’s partnership with The Trotter Project.

We’ve been down this road before, with the actual Charlie Trotter. From 2007 to 2010 United served Charlie Trotter meals… and they were in my opinion the worst meals United had served up until that point. The Charlie Trotter chicken, lamb, and short ribs were truly bad. The appetizers were, admittedly, better.

Of course the new meals won’t have anything in common with the old ones, other than the Trotter connection-ish.

Here they’re working with a variety of chefs who trained under Trotter — and like all such celebrity chef endeavors at airlines, it’s the ideas that come from this group working closely with the airline’s own in-house culinary team which is experienced dealing with the challenges of delivery meals produced in large quantity, delivered to aircraft, prepared with limited resources in a confined space, and served in a pressurized cabin environment.

It’s the ideas, and the willingness to lend a name and reputation to the meals, that signals at a minimum an attention to and attempt at quality. As the original Trotter partnership in my view demonstrates, we have to wait for the execution to see how this actually plays out, though in speaking to United this afternoon about it they promised innovation that “will be noticeable, focusing on the cutting edge in meal service.”

Back in the 90s United had Jacques Pepin meals in premium cabins (they later replaced him with Gerry Gulli) and even chef-branded meals in economy (Sheila Lukins). That didn’t make the United economy meals good but it was still an investment. The Trotter Project will be a part of United’s Buy on Board.

The rollout will be:

  • Summer 2015: the fresh component (“Bistro on Board”) of economy buy on board
  • Fall 2015: premium cabin p.s. service (New York JFK – Los Angeles/San Francisco) meals
  • Next year: international business class meals (which encompasses Global First as well)

When a chef lends their name to an airport project or an airline project you know they are trading on reputation and accepting lower quality. Nonetheless, you can do better than what you would otherwise get in-airport or inflight. As I wrote about the Danny Meyer Shake Shack IPO,

you probably want to eat Blue Smoke barbecue on a plane (because it’s better than what Delta would otherwise serve you) but you may not want to eat it in the restaurant.

My rule of thumb is the airline usually improves, and the chef declines through these arrangements. There’s a good chance this signals an improvement in onboard meal service, although there’s no guarantee. It clearly demonstrates United is trying to elevate their meal service.

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 »

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  1. Let’s be honest here, if United wanted to really improve meal quality they could just start buying a better product tomorrow from their current meal provider. We see lots of airlines with great food and no fancy chefs name attached. this is purely about marketing and maybe trying to squeeze incremental revenue from buy on board but has nothing to do about improving the product. If they cared about the product they would start catering every flight out of Chicago with Frontera grill tortas and declare victory. Everyone is already buying off board to eat them on United flights anyways.

  2. If only we could bring the management ghosts of United’s past to run the airline and Mileage plus
    Before it became ruined by Smizeck and his revenue whore fleece their pockets cronies

  3. They do seem to cater to occational flyers who apparently are wowed by the menu more than the food. Those of us who have eaten the dish 15 times seem to be SOL when it comes to getting some decent meals in variety. Really should just hire Adam Carolla as a consultant. If you don’t order a Fontina and leek omelet on the ground, you don’t want it in the air. Make food people actually would order and eat in real life. And make it good. “I feel like this entire menu is the dream of something fancy by someone who’s never had food before and never been in first class.”

  4. Seems like they are trying the Lufthansa/Swiss method….difference being Lufthansa/Swiss actually put good ingredients and prep into their offerings lol

  5. In the past week I enjoyed the new menu items both domestically and internationally on four separate flights and appreciate that United is doing things differently. The choices were surprisingly good.

  6. I mostly agree with the previous commenters.

    First, I actually like the domestic first improvements that United has recently made. I think it’s been a marked improvement on longer, and dinner, flights. (OTOH, I flew ATL-EWR last week and had That Damn Cheeseburger again.) I also think the international BF/GF entrees are surprisingly good for a US-based airline — the appetizers, not so much.

    The recipes, however, are not the biggest impediment to improved meal service. Service is. Unless they can create a culture where the premium cabin crew consistently care about the service aspects of their job, they can hire all the food consultants in the world and it won’t make a difference. Unless they train crew, and get them to care about, reheating without over-cooking and plating then we’ll be stuck with the folks who turn the ovens on high at takeoff, and dump the foil trays onto a plate when its service time.

    I’ve had some really excellent UA crew. They are the exception, not the rule. (For example, I always ask straight away, “would it be possible to get the steak medium?” 20% of the time I get a genuine, polite, affirmative response. 80% of the time I get “we don’t really have any control over that” and I order the chicken instead.) Most of the crew are just really jaded about the whole situation, and I’ve never felt it appropriate to dig and find out why.

    Since none of the big 3 US airlines have a focus on service I don’t expect anything to change. In the meantime, I’m just happy that my (exorbitantly priced, but still worth it) LH F seats cleared two weeks out and I’ll soon get to enjoy real service on an airplane so I can start my vacation a day earlier.

  7. In United’s defense, I thought the United/Trotter short ribs were quite good. I didn’t try the other items, but I still have the United menu with the short ribs because I loved it so much. I know as a blogger it pays to be snarky, but give credit where it’s due.

  8. @Antonio – the trotter short ribs were the fattiest I ever tried. If I were being snarky I’d have said they gave me the trots…!

  9. @dwonderment we don’t want everything back from those days, like starwood blocking or award routing rules that did not permit exceeding MPM…

  10. Maybe others are more fickle than I am.

    But co-branding meals with Trotter, Pepin, etc., impresses me not. As for ecomony meals, I would be more persuaded if they said “look, its tough to have 8 FA’s serve 300 people from the galley of a 777 in an hour. To that end, we have had folks trained in mass catering who you have never heard of develop meals which account for the unique challenges encountered at 30,000 feet.” For premium classes, much the same, but, once again, to impress me, the emphasis must be on what they do to master the challenges they face – and I do not think that celebrity chefs bring much to the table in dealing with this challenge.

  11. Sorry Gary, I guess I was being a bit snarky myself last night. I guess the short ribs product was just not always consistent. I had a great experience, you didn’t. That falls on the airline/caterer.

  12. I go back 30 years to flying ORD – SFO, and having the flight attendants roll a cart through 1st Class of a DC10 that had a full Prime Rib for carving. They would always ask how thick a slice you wanted, and provided a level of attention to detail that just does not exist any more.

    On another note, I flew IAD – SEA last Friday, and was taken with a meal that reminded me of the type of meal served in economy 20 years ago. Chicken with secret sauce, spinach, and some spuds on the side. The salad and salad dressing were no different, just a plastic Ken’s type dressing that was exactly what they used to serve in economy.

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