Georgia Chef Takes Food From Farm to Plane and Beyond

Linton Hopkins—restauranteur, entrepreneur, much-lauded chef—is sitting at a quiet back table in his flagship Atlanta restaurant, eyeing a salad. And fretting.

The salad is small, chunky and colorful: cubes of cucumber and tomato, crisp shards of olive bread, a swath of aioli underneath, a drizzle of dark vinegar and grass-green olive oil. It is a modern take on a panzanella, an Italian peasant dish that uses the juices of ripe summer tomatoes to revive stale bread.

If he were making it in his restaurant kitchen and serving it to his restaurant customers, Hopkins could control the dish exactly, prepping the panzanella just far enough ahead to deliver it at the perfect intersection of creaminess and crunch. This version, though, won’t benefit from timing that precise. It is destined to be mixed 12 hours in advance, portioned into dishes, driven 15 miles south, packed into bump-proof trays, and loaded into the business-class galleys of Delta Air Lines flights headed across the Atlantic—provided Hopkins and his staff can make it work.

It’s late March; Hopkins is testing the salad for inclusion in Delta’s summer menu. It represents, in a small white dish, significant ambition on the part of the airline and the cook. Delta wants to offer its high-value passengers not just a celebrity chef, but a modern, local experience. Hopkins plans to get to that goal, not by relying on the traditional wholesalers of food service, but by assembling many small producers—farmers, butchers, cheese-makers—into his own supply force.

For the effort to work, the dishes made from the artisanal products have to be not only consistent and reliable; they have to be delicious. But this candidate salad—made from local bread, local vegetables, and the first olive oil grown in Georgia since the Civil War—has been assembled only two hours, and already the bread is softening.

“It’s going to get soggy,” Hopkins comments, gently nudging a shard. “But it’s not going to disintegrate. Can we marinate just the vegetables, and lay the bread on top? Will it absorb the dressing over time that way?”

Jason Paolini, Hopkins’ culinary director, leans over his boss’s shoulder and prods the salad with a fork. “We’ll have to test it,” he says. “But I think it will work.”

Delta is headquartered in Atlanta. Hopkins, a native, has been a culinary force in the city since 2004, when he opened his elegant flagship, Restaurant Eugene, followed by the city’s first cocktail-centered gastropub, Holeman & Finch Public House. Restless but focused, he began seeking out small-batch ingredients—he founded the city’s biggest farmers market and its most tightly curated liquor store, H&F Bottle Shop—while also exploring feeding people on a much larger scale. He spun a cult burger of grassfed beef, served at the pub only after 10 p.m., into a set of food stalls at the stadium hosting the Atlanta Braves, and launched a freestanding bakery, H&F Bread Co., that supplies his own restaurants and quickly developed a waiting list of other food service customers.

Those two concerns — cooking locally and in volume — came together late in 2013, when Hopkins won the “Cabin Pressure Cook-Off,” staged by Delta and Food & Wine magazine. The airline already worked with celebrity chefs and sommeliers, but after his win, Hopkins signaled he wanted to reframe the rules of in-air catering. He would focus his menus, on flights originating in Atlanta, on modern Southern cooking—and, as much as possible, on small producers who exemplify the South. “If you make mayonnaise from scratch,” he said in an interview then, “you’re changing the world for the better.”

Eighteen months later, his suppliers are a Who’s Who of well-known Southeastern artisans—Anson Mills grits, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Blackberry Farm—and also a list of brilliant small producers who haven’t caught the spotlight yet: Hughes’ sorghum syrup, Many Fold Farm’s sheep cheeses, the Spotted Trotter’s charcuterie. Each product represents a logistical challenge, from placing cheese orders six months in advance to make sure the wheels are aged in time, to lining up farmers who grow different peach varieties so the supply will be consistent as one type ripens and another one passes out of season.

In normal food service, a middleman company—the international giant Sysco, for instance—would direct the time-consuming negotiation and collection. Hopkins has elected to be the middleman instead. To handle the products, he built his own prep kitchen, which he calls Eugene Kitchen. It’s stocked with walk-in freezers and industrial-size tilt kettles—and, on one morning, bags of blanched root vegetables, frozen puff pastry, and shredded meat from the spent hens of White Oak Pastures, Georgia’s largest grass-fed farm. The stacks of ingredients, each from a different source, will be trucked to the airport by a Eugene employee and assembled into pot pies by Gate Gourmet, Delta’s catering contractor.

“Chefs are taught to get on the phone with your list, and the food will show up within a seven-hour order window,” Hopkins says. “It makes us lazy. Here, we’ve built inconvenience back into the process, because it requires us to be thoughtful, to deal with human beings as human beings, not just to wave a check.”

The Costs and Rewards of Scaling-Up

The rigors of supplying an airline can be stressful for small producers. Airline food is founded on consistency, and not only because companies don’t want one high-spending customer discovering that his seat-mate got a bigger cookie. Airlines calculate their costs down to fine margins, so even small differences in the weight of what is loaded on a plane day to day—another ounce on the chicken breast, an extra scoop of ice cream in dessert—can add up to burning extra fuel.

But artisanal producers celebrate inconsistency, so learning to work with a very large organization has brought lessons that they had not expected to learn.

Banner Butter, an artisanal cultured-butter company run by a young couple in an Atlanta industrial park, had to figure out how to slice, package and deliver its product in individual pats, ready to be plopped onto dinner trays. It sounds like a small task, but its bare-bones staff was already busy shaping and wrapping the butter into 5-ounce rounds for retail. Adding in responsibility for 850 half-ounce portions at a time, twice a week, was a learning curve.

“And it was quite an exercise figuring out how best to deliver them,” says Andrew McBath, who owns Banner with his wife Elizabeth. “We thought we’d be very eco-friendly, very low-waste, so we cut the pats, formed them into logs and wrapped them in foil—and then the word came back, that totally blew up Gate Gourmet’s process, so we’d need to rethink. So now we stack them in layers, with paper in between.”

The compensation for learning to deliver to a large corporation’s standards is, well, the compensation: larger amounts of income at a time than a small producer would otherwise expect to see. Selling to Delta let the McBaths buy a butter churn twice the size of the bootstrapped one they used to start their business, doubling their capacity and making it possible for them to recruit other large accounts such as Whole Foods. “When someone takes a chance on you like this, it changes your life,” Drew said.

In the case of Hope’s Gardens, a small-batch pesto maker, it may literally have saved their business. Leslie and Dave Lennox were making pesto from their back garden and giving it to friends when they were invited to join a prestigious Atlanta farmers’ market in 2007. The pesto was so popular the couple expanded their distribution to retail stores, and the business flourished until 2013—and then Leslie ruptured a disk in her back, and the Lennoxes put the company “on pause,” Dave Lennox said. “And then Linton called and asked if we would partner with him. It has had a profound effect on our business.”

Delta’s menus run on a 3-month cycle: September to November, December to February, March to May, June through August. The dishes that are in planes right now passed their last step of evaluation in late May, at a small industrial kitchen tucked under the glow of a hangar-sized sign that reads “Fly Delta Jets.”

The Gate Gourmet crew, headed by executive chef Christian Hallowell, has laid out all the menu choices, in the dishes and trays in which flight attendants will receive them. There are spiced pecans to go with a signature cocktail, a soup of zucchini and fennel topped with fresh cheese and trout caviar, and an amuse-bouche of pickled Gulf shrimp and celery salad. There are four entrees, each with side dishes: an herb-crusted short rib, a Low Country stew of chicken and butter beans called a “perloo,” crabcakes with creamed corn, and roasted vegetables on top of giant ravioli made from an heirloom grain. For dessert, there is a peach-blueberry crisp with sorghum-swirl ice cream, and oat biscuits and small-batch cheeses; and for breakfast, a chunky granola studded with dried cherries and paired with grass-fed Greek yogurt, and a cheese omelet with local sausage.

Everything gets sampled, but the discussion is about strategy as well as taste. The ravioli, bedded in a bowl in an olive-oil broth, is hard to cut. The crabcakes, of lump meat barely bound together, may need a ring around them to keep them intact through transport, but no one knows if there is galley space to stash them afterward. There is concern the cobbler won’t get enough time in the plane’s oven. “It won’t work cold,” Hallowell warns.

It seems like a lot of effort, for a meal that will be consumed in artificial surroundings, at an altitude that diminishes the ability to taste (except maybe Bloody Marys) and—in the case of breakfast — after only a few hours’ sleep. But business analysts say that the amenities airlines offer to their front-of-plane customers make a different in cementing loyalty to the brand—especially for millennial travelers for whom “local” and “farm to table” are crucial.

Jonathan Kletzel, U.S. transportation and logistics leader at the consulting firm PwC, says that while research shows that airline customers don’t buy their tickets on the basis of the menu, the food and beverage they are served “drives customer satisfaction—and that is absolutely something that is important to airlines.” He adds: “Business class customers are purchasing tickets with a pretty high value, so airlines want to make sure flyers perceive they are getting the value they paid for.”

In the final round of tasting—after discussion of the moisture in summer tomatoes, questions whether to add cheese, and debate over extra dressing—the panzanella is approved. “I thought it would work,” Paolini says. “It eats really well.”

Steering Local Food Beyond the Plane

It’s de rigueur these days for chefs to say that they aim for not just deliciousness, but ethics: supporting cottage industries, enabling authenticity, giving market power back to the little guy. Hopkins, who has won a James Beard Award and been a Food & Wine Best New Chef, talks that talk as well as anyone.

“What a chef does,” he tells me one summer morning, “is to not take any ingredient for granted. To see that each one in its own way should be phenomenal, and display its rich history and tell its own story.”

But what he is doing with the Delta deal, ushering tiny producers into an arena they could never negotiate on their own, is, in a way, not about the ingredients at all. It addresses instead the unsexy underpinnings of the food system: a new logistics for getting artisan products to market. If it can work for almost 4,000 meals a week, Hopkins thinks, it can work for much more.

“People think ‘farm-to-table’ means heirloom tomatoes in summer,” he tells me. “But what ‘farm to table’ really means is raising standards through the entire process of sourcing. It’s supply-chain management, and that’s not exciting to talk about. But I know we can scale artisanal. And if we did that, we could change how everyone eats.”

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