Delta is taking the “eat local” trend to new heights. The airline recently launched an in-flight dining program that spotlights regional dishes and local purveyors. So, instead of mystery meat, passengers can savor Benton’s country ham from Tennessee. To promote this palate-pleasing project, Delta hosted a unique, bi-city dinner party: Delta Swap Chef.
Delta Swap Chef featured two dinners, one in Seattle and one in Los Angeles, where famed chefs from each city swapped kitchens for a night. The participating chefs — Seattle’s Ethan Stowell and L.A.’s Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo — made tasting menus sourced from a mix of ingredients from both towns. Before each dinner, the chefs prepped together, with the hometown chef(s) showing off their favorite farmers markets, fishmongers, and cheese shops. After all, as Vinny puts it aptly, “the best chefs are usually the best shoppers.” Overseeing the four-day affair was Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins and master sommelier Andrea Robinson, both culinary ambassadors that Delta has tapped to elevate their in-flight experience.
I was lucky to attend the fun Seattle feast, which was held at one of chef Stowell’s many restaurants, Tavolata, on November 9. Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, co-owners of L.A. hotspots Animal and Son of a Gun, manned the kitchen, while Stowell worked the room. From Dungeness crab topped with daikon and yuzu to Manila clams with chilies and grits, each dish deliciously married foodstuffs from both towns. Thanks to a trip to Ballard Farmer’s Market the previous day, where Shook and Dotolo got a taste of Seattle’s signature rain, the menu featured chanterelles from Foraged & Found.
In light of Seattle and L.A.’s perch along the Pacific Ocean and proximity to produce, most of the meal highlighted flavors from the sea and farms. Two tasty exceptions: an Edwards Country ham that Chef Hopkins cheekily brought as a carry-on and an awesome foie gras, biscuit, and maple sausage gravy combo Jon and Vinny imported from LA. Sommelier Robinson hand-picked lovely wine pairings for each plate. With a wink to Seattle’s beer scene, she matched local brewer Holy Mountain bourbon barrel-aged King’s Head Oatmeal Brown Ale to the aforementioned foie.
During the meal, I got to chat with Hopkins, the James Beard Award-winning chef that Delta picked in 2014 to develop this local food initiative. “Airlines have chosen systems over deliciousness,” he explained, lamenting the bland fare that is often served on board. Hopkins showed Delta that by using regional producers, like AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery, they could improve taste while helping the communities they serve. With millions of hungry fliers, Delta’s support can bring great success to local purveyors. It’s a win-win for small business and our bellies.
As an example of Delta’s locavorism, Hopkins shared that this first part of the Seattle-L.A. Swap Chef had spawned a possible new food partner: Stokesberry Farm, for their farm-fresh eggs. This was one of the many relationships fostered from the dinner. “Swap Chef isn’t one night only. Now Ethan is a friend. We’ve cooked together. We’ve walked markets together,” gushed Hopkins.
The affable chef is a fitting ambassador for Delta. The airline has realized that food has the capacity to create connections — just as their planes link passengers near and far. Future Swap Chefs are on the horizon. In the meantime, Delta will continue to enhance their menus, one local flavor at a time.