French airline Air France is working hard to provide its passengers with “a little piece of France’s terroir” in the air.
What is the best way to transport customers to France before they’ve even arrived, or to leave them with a succulent aftertaste of Paris when they return home?
By serving fine dishes and fine wine in the cabin, and delivering a tasty and carefully-crafted dining experience aboard its aircrafts.
As one of the experts in charge of Air France’s wine selection, Thierry Desseauve, puts it: “aboard an airplane, people have plenty of quiet time on their hands to discover fine dishes and new wines.”
France’s national airline is looking at bringing the best of the French savoir-faire (know-how) in terms of gastronomy and wine to its customers, especially in the Première, Business, and Premium Economy cabins.
Although, the on-a-budget travelers are not totally left behind, as Air France is the only airline to offer a complementary glass of Champagne to all passengers on long-haul flights.
I hopped on a plane to Paris, to the Grand Tasting wine event held yearly at the Louvre Museum in December, to meet with the wine experts and Air France staff in charge of the onboard experience, and learn more about the airline’s projects and how tasty their fine dining and wining experience really is.
Fasten your seatbelt, relax, and read on…
Gourmet Dining on a Plane – Air France’s “Michelin-Starred Restaurant Experience”
Air France efforts towards providing the best possible onboard experience aim at bringing passengers some “innovative menus, leading French chefs, an original selection of wines, tableware worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant…”, or put more simply: “Enjoy the very best of French haute cuisine!”
In the La Première and Business cabins, French Michelin-starred chefs work closely with Servair, the catering division of Air France-KLM, to prepare dishes that will taste in the air just as good (or close) as if you’d be visiting an award-wining French Restaurant.
An Air France Menu by Chef Régis Marcon
I sat down, during the Grand Tasting wine event, to experience a menu served aboard Air France during the course of 2017 (and the wines to match, obviously!), prepared by Régis Marcon, the owner of the restaurant Le Clos des Cimes located in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid in the Haute-Loire, awarded 3 stars by the Michelin Guide since 2005.
The menu was composed of an entrée served in the La Premiere cabin while the dishes were served in Business class.
Crème de Chou Feur & Champagne
« Crème de chou-fleur, crevette, et vinaigrette à la tomate séchée »
Served with 2007 Amour de Deutz Champagne, a crisp sparkling wine with much elegance, touches of citrus and enjoyable layers of leesy and brioche characters. A succulent mise en bouche.
Nougat de Volaille au Foie Gras & Meursault
A trail of pickled vegetables and mushroom and an acidic vinegar and shallots brings liveliness to the chicken and foie gras nougat. A subtle and elegant dish, with a diversity of texture and layers of delicate meat and vegetable flavors delivered elegantly to your palate.
Good combination with a 2013 Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Les Clous that is restrained, slightly citrusy and a touch doughy and leesy, but like the dish, with a discrete and subtle texture expression of Chardonnay.
Crevettes et encornets sautés, lentilles au beurre blanc et à l’orange
Elegant lentils stew with hints of orange in the sauce, bringing much freshness, fruitiness, and liveliness to the dish. Delicate flavors overall which allows to still taste these fine lentils that have a discrete flavor, while the citrus complements the seafood well.
The Alsace Riesling grand cru (a 2012 Altenberg de Bergheim by G. Lorentz) is an absolute wonder, fine, dry, but balanced by a touch of residual sugars, some delicate spiciness, and more importantly, delightful ripe citrus notes. A truly great Alsace Riesling.
Jarret de Veau Sauce Morilles & Red Wines
« Jarret de veau et sa sauce crémeuse aux morilles sur un risotto d’épeautre bio et petits pois »
Veal meat that melts in your mouth, with a creamy mushroom sauce, and crunchy épeautre (spelt) risotto. A tasty, elegant, yet meaty, savory, and hearty dish.
2012 Domaine Chanson Corton Grand Cru: fruity and vibrant, some spices but also an outstanding violet floral character. 2011 Chateau Trotte Vieille Saint-Emilion is an excellent example of a very good right-bank Bordeaux wine. While I found the Domaine de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Classique less convincing.
Soufflé à l’orange du Chef Quissac and Sauternes
Making and cooking a soufflé, such a typically-French dish is a difficult challenge, undertaken by Chef Michel Quissac. While I personally found the orange-flavored soufflé’s texture a little granulous, and tasting a bit eggy for my palate, the cooked vanilla-scented apple on a biscuit served to its side, and a tremendous 2009 Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey Sauternes wine were absolute delights.
Top Chefs aboard Air France
Chefs take turns to change menus every few months, so you can explore and taste something different during every trip.
Cooks working with Air France on the cabin menus include Guy Martin, Michel Roth, Jean Sulpice and François Adamski, all winners of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France) et Bocuse d’Or awards.
For flights departing from the United States and Canada, you can enjoy gourmet cuisine from chef Daniel Boulud. For flights departing from Paris arriving in Seoul in the Business cabin, dishes designed by Korean chef Youn-Young Kim will take you on a tour of Asian flavors.
In the Premium Economy and Economy cabins on flights departing from Paris, French chef Jean Imbert winner of 2012 TV show Top Chef, has created an “A la Carte” menu featuring adaptations of his signature dishes.
Building a Wine Selection for an Airline
The wine selection aboard Air France is made by Italian Sommelier Paolo Basso and famous French wine experts Michel Bettane & Thierry Desseauve.
Paolo Basso was awarded the title of “Best Swiss Sommelier” in 1997. He went on to win the title of “Best European Sommelier” in 2010, and in 2013 he was crowned world champion.
Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve are the authors of the internationally-respected Bettane and Desseauve wine guide. Michel Bettane was the main contributor to “La Revue du Vin de France”, a magazine dedicated to French wine in the 1980’s before he started his own venture with partner Thierry Desseauve who was the Editor-in-Chief, then of “La Revue du Vin de France” from 1989 to 2005.
I sat down with Thierry Desseauve to learn more about how the wine selection for Air France is made.
“Wines are all tasted blind with Paolo Basso”, Desseauve told me.
They have wine samples sent by the wineries, before the three of them score the wines blind, to assess the quality solely based on tasting at first. “Any wine below a 15/20 score will never be served in the Business cabin, while nothing below 16/20 will be seen in First.”
Over the past few years, Basso, Bettane, and Desseauve have been working at bringing more coherence to the wine selection, with the customer’s satisfaction as the ultimate goal.
So, after the wines have been tasted, the selection is further refined. Desseauve explained the two main principles for building their wine selection, beyond the taste of the wines:
Serving some renown brands and appellations:
Like aboard Air France’s planes, let’s start with Champagne. Desseauve noticed that customers expect to find famous and recognized brands on airlines. So, the fame of the Champagne house is an important factor to be considered in the selection, together with the taste of the bubbly.
“The same goes for our choice of appellations.” Desseauve told me. “We try, as much as possible, to always have a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, because it’s an ultra-famous name, just like Saint-Emilion as another example. Even if you don’t know the producing winery, as least you’ll know the appellation.”
Make sure wines are complementary with each other, to satisfy all palates and the customer’s curiosity:
For every passenger to find a wine he/she will not only recognize but also enjoy, Desseauve explained that “on a wine list, if you have two whites, one has to be ample and round, like Chardonnay, and the other crispier and more pungent, like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Same for reds, you need to have a Bordeaux because it’s expected, and then a Pinot Noir or a wine from the South of France like Châteauneuf. That said, one can also be more adventurous and curious, and we like to offer lesser-known alternatives, like the wines of Gérard Bertrand (including those of La Soujeole) from the Languedoc wine region.”
To learn even more about the background story of how Air France designs its onboard food and wine, I asked a few questions to Carole Peytavin, the woman in charge of all customer experience at Air France, from airport lounges to all aircraft cabins.
Interview with Mme Carole Peytavin, Director of Customer Experience at Air France
How do you simply describe your ambition regarding food and wine aboard Air France?
Carole Peytavin: Traveling is a celebration, and France is a synonym of celebration. So, all our work on wine and gastronomy aims at bringing a sense of joy and celebration to the cabin. Air France brings a little piece of the French terroir in its aircrafts. This is why we serve Champagne even in the Economy cabin, and also why 100% of our wine selection is made of French wines.
Are customers happy about the 100% French wine policy?
Carole Peytavin: Our point is not to say there aren’t great wines made all around the world. But the airline is committed to bringing a sense of France to our passengers. For international customers visiting France, it is a first exposure to the French culinary culture and they appreciate it. For French travelers returning home after a long travel abroad, it’s reassuring to find the comforting taste of French cuisine they like in the airplane already.
Why did you ask Paolo Basso, Michel Bettane, and Thierry Desseauve to make your wine selection?
Carole Peytavin: It’s been a matter of connection, and an encounter with wine personalities that demand high standards of both quality and authenticity in the wines they select. We also found that Paolo, Michel and Thierry are humble and open-minded enough to emphasize with our customers, and not to make decisions based solely on their own palates. The bonus is that the three of them are getting to know each other better and better over time as they work together, which in turns helps with constantly improving the wine selection.
In addition, Paolo Basso helps us with the Bordeaux En Primeur tastings and selection. He tastes all wines, and his expertise enables us to buy the right wines, even four years before they will actually be served on the airline.
A Conclusion? The Future of Wine & Food aboard Airplanes
The future of wine and food aboard airplanes is looking bright!
Not only companies like Air France are upping their game significantly to bring refined and tasty dishes to the cabin, and the matching wines, but technology allows to foresee how we will soon be able to fill up all this empty time we spend traveling, with more discoveries and exploration of the culinary world.
Soon, we will be able, while having a fine dinning experience, to watch films and/or use apps that will tell us the story of what we’re eating.
Imagine being able to watch a movie about the winery you’re tasting the wine from, or witness how the chef designed and prepared in his own kitchen the dish you’re tasting in an airplane.
That would certainly complete the entirety of the culinary experience, and bring passengers to places they might not get a chance to physically go to.
You’re travelling to Paris on a business trip?
Well, you can also visit a winery in Bordeaux, Champagne, Rhone, and Burgundy, and have lunch at a 3-Michelin Star Restaurant, all from your airplane seat, before you’ve even landed in France!
This is sooner than you might think!
Can’t wait to see the future. I would love to be involved in making videos for this, and share, as I do, my passion and knowledge of wine. Why not!?!
In the meantime, enjoy the journey…