Food lovers (specifically carnivores) who end up within a 100-mile radius of Los Angeles are very likely to make a reservation at Animal, a restaurant in LA’s Fairfax neighborhood that’s become a legit national destination, based on chefs John Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s meaty dishes, which are thoughtful and indulgent in nearly equal measures.
But on Monday, Shook and Dotolo relocated to Belltown for a night, taking over Ethan Stowell’s eldest restaurant, Tavolàta. Acclaimed Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins was there too, holding court over a massive leg of peanut-fed Edwards Country Ham from Virginia.
This elaborate chef swap (dubbed “swap chef” by its organizers) was actually the work of Delta Air Lines, which is looking to amp up its local food and wine ties in certain major markets. Like, coincidentally enough, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Thus the Animal guys came up from LA and hit the Ballard Farmers Market with Stowell and Hopkins (he’s the culinary ambassador for the Atlanta-based airline). The chefs came up with a seven-course dinner that fused their respective styles remarkably well: hamachi crudo with a galbi vinaigrette; Manila clams with Georgia’s Big Fat Grits, amped up with citrus and chilies. Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, Delta’s wine czar, chose pairings from Southern California winemakers and local brewery Holy Mountain.
“Coming soon to an in-flight meal near you,” our server joked as she set down the night’s culinary mic drop, Animal’s biscuits and maple sausage gravy, topped with a hefty piece of foie gras. Yes, she was kidding, but this invite-only dinner, filled with media, Delta VIPs, and that nebulous category of people known as "influencers," is a sign that localizing airline food is becoming a big deal.
For years no one thought much about in-flight food, unless it was to complain about it...or about it no longer being included in the price of a ticket. Now the promise of drinking a local IPA or ordering a meal conceived by a big-name chef gives an airline a distinct advantage with a certain spectrum of travelers. It's no accident Delta's biggest competitor in the Seattle market stocks its galleys with Beecher's cheese plates, tiny bottles of Sun Liquor gin, and meals designed by Tom Douglas. Chefs like Michelle Bernstein and Michael Chiarello do menus for Delta; Hopkins has been busy developing relationships with other big culinary names, like restaurateur Danny Meyer.
Hopkins also checked out local purveyors who could help make seasonal, regional meals for flights in and out of Seattle, the way he works with farmers and artisans in his native Georgia to supply certain Atlanta flights."It's about slow, thoughtful baby steps," he says. He was already jazzed about the eggs from Olympia's Stokesberry farm, and the idea of in-flight lasagna made by tiny downtown pasta restaurant Il Corvo (food by Il Corvo would pretty much guarantee my airline loyalty for life).
While that goal is still a ways off, marketing videos of the chefs perusing the farmers market together should show up on future Delta flights. The Seattle dinner was the airline's first swap chef event, but Stowell and company had early morning flights to Los Angeles the next morning; they're doing it all again when Tavolàta takes over Animal tonight.