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High-Flying Flavors

Keeping customers satisfied at 35,000 feet gives Gerry McLoughlin a taste of success

Author A. Averyl Re

FROM THE TIME HE BEGAN HIS CAREER in the airline industry 23 years ago, Gerry McLoughlin has been on a mission: overcoming the “mystery-meat syndrome” usually associated with economy-class food. “I think it’s important for our customers to be able to look at their food and know what it is,” he says. “For so many years, airlines put chopped-up meat in some kind of sauce because it was more economical. But we try to provide something that is easily recognizable … and tasty.”

As executive chef and senior manager of food and beverage planning for United, McLoughlin wields a lot of influence over what is—or is not—served onboard. He heads a team of menu planners responsible for every United menu everywhere in the world. “We have a Congress of Chefs, which is made up of restaurant chefs, that we use as a think tank to keep current on what’s happening in the restaurant industry, what’s in demand,” he says. “With my team, we think of how to make best practices in the restaurant industry work for an airline.”

Making food service work for an airline presents challenges that most restaurant chefs never have to consider—such as preparing 200 economy-class meals that hold up to cooking and reheating but do not exceed the 2-inch height restrictions that airplane food carts impose.

“People don’t fly airlines for a particular type of food,” says McLoughlin, “But we try to have a little something for everyone. If you’re going to a particular place, such as India or Japan, our food is focused on the regional aspects. We partner with regional chefs to make sure we’re getting our flavor profile right.”

McLoughlin and his team plan four separate menus each year, with the airline offering each menu for a month at a time. They consider how to keep the food consistent, regardless of whether it’s prepared in one of the airline’s five U.S. kitchens or at a kitchen elsewhere in the world, and search for new technologies to help in this effort (such as sous vide, a technique that enables food to hold up to cooking and reheating without drying out).

The team also considers options for health-conscious travelers—although McLoughlin notes that while people say they want to eat healthy, “in United BusinessFirst, the steak is usually the first item that’s gone.” The same goes for United Economy, where surveys had indicated customers wanted a low-calorie snack box, but that turned out to be a very low-selling item.

Growing up in Dublin as the son of a Guinness plant engineer, McLoughlin always wanted to be a chef. His dad told him, “You’ll never be rich, but you’ll never go hungry.” After training at Cathal Brugha Street (a.k.a. the Dublin Institute of Technology’s College of Catering), McLoughlin began work at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

It was a TV program about Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration that changed the direction of McLoughlin’s life. After seeing it, he was inspired to journey to Chicago, where he worked stints at the city’s The Metropolitan Club and other establishments. Then came a chance encounter with a colleague wearing an airline T-shirt who suggested he try working for United.

“I never expected to find myself at an airline, but it opened a whole new world to me,” McLoughlin says. “If you work in hotels and you want to do a Peruvian menu, you go to the library and do research. When you work for an airline, you get on a plane, go to Peru to talk to local chefs, walk through the markets and learn about local cuisine—to not just read about a product, but to go touch it and taste it in its home environment.”

Though McLoughlin has made a profession of food, it’s his wife, Jane, who handles cooking for their family, which includes 22-year-old Shamus, 19-year-old Sean and 16-year-old Molly. “My wife claims I can dirty 12 pots just making a sandwich,” he says, “so I get thrown out of the kitchen except on holidays when I get to cook.”

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