"Je ne suis pas un membre de la 'class de business,'" I tried to explain to the nice flight attendant offering me a glass of Champagne. Heck, I don't even believe in the class system. Yet here she was, insisting that this cushy thing with the private TV and more adjustable cushions than that massage chair at The Sharper Image was my proper place aboard the flight. "Mais oui, mon-fine-sieur," she may well have said, "bien sur this is your seat. May I offer you some cheese?"*
Oh fine, if you insist. I'm a sucker for cheese.
* These interactions may or may not have really taken place in French, if at all.
Let it be known that henceforth, I shall never mock my wife and her frugal ways ever again. Due in large part to her ability to gather airline mileage on airlines that I don't think I ever fly and for flights I don't think I ever take, she managed to get me onto the upgrade stand-by list for an international flight. Not only that, but at the top of the list. I'm not entirely convinced she accomplished this by ethical manners—it's well possible that she's been using her Cryptography degree to hack into Delta's heretofore infamously impenetrable online booking system. Either way: That's why I married her.
After the initial Champagne and cheese, turns out that flying business class is not all that different from flying with the riffraff (man, it's easy to become a classist when you suddenly find yourself at the top!). The main difference is that when I inevitably pass out due to lack of stimulus two minutes after they force me to turn off my computer and cell phone, in business class I end up drooling onto a cushy patent leather divider instead of onto the shoulder of the stranger sitting next to me.
That is, at least until the food arrives. Right off the bat, I knew something was a little different when I was offered a gin and tonic in a real glass along with my peanuts. You know, the kind of glass that a normal passenger could potentially break into life-threatening tiny shards?
Things really took a strange turn when the waitress—ahem flight attendant—brought by a real cloth tablecloth for my fold out tray table, a wine list (really!), and a menu, with the words Executive Chef Michelle Bernstein printed on it.
I sneaked a furtive glance down the aisle towards the galley and thought that perhaps I caught a glimpse of the famous chef's famous golden curls hiding under a toque peeking out from behind the bald man in airplane slippers waiting for the john.
Soon after my first glass of Burgundy was poured, the first course arrived. I instinctively adjusted my seat back to the full upright position to get a better look at what was in front of me. Is this...real salmon?
Yes, indeed it was. To be quite honest, some of the finest lightly cured gravlax I've had anywhere. Who knew I had to come to 37,000 feet to find it? It came with a creamy home-made lemon mayonnaise, along with a Japanese pear salad that in fairness should have been less oxidized but was delicious nonetheless.
Up next: a salad of fresh, tender greens, cranberries, and pine nuts, served with a tiny pitcher of blue cheese dressing. Yes, a pitcher, not a plastic tub. I was about to try out my newfound "entitled voice" and complain that such delicate greens should not be doused in blue cheese—and what kind of cretin is forced to dress his salad himself may I ask?—but as soon as I overheard the stewardess in the section behind me say, "Would you like the chicken or the pasta?" I stopped mid-sentence to humbly ask for another glass of their finest house red.
And then the true test: the airline entrée. The dark, foil-covered, plastic-sectioned trays where meats unfit for ground-level consumption quietly await their underseasoned, overcooked demise. I poked at my cake of polenta and found it to be delightfully creamy and tender, with plenty of seasoning to go around. I dabbed my finger into the small bowl of chimichurri and noted the fine quality of the olive oil that went into its making Chilean, no doubt, I thought to myself doubtfully. I even picked up a semi-turgid stalk of asparagus and marveled at the few spots that were not army green.
Finally, I cut into the short rib, wondering to myself, "Could this be the first airline meal as good as the food I've had on the ground?"
Well sort of. I've certainly had worse braised short ribs in my life, and there was no shortage of good seasoning and flavor, but the meat was undeniably dry and stringy. Like the best mortician in the world attempting to put a pretty suit and makeup on a horribly withered body for its last mortal showing, Chef Bernstein fought valiantly against the insurmountable forces of holding trays and high altitude palates.
But all was well in the end. Not only was I offered a digestif of bourbon, but when I politely declined the flourless chocolate cake, I was instead offered a selection of three excellently ripe cheeses served at just slightly below room temperature (as they should be).
Like I said, I'm a sucker for cheese.
So tell me: What's the best airline meal you've ever had?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.