A James Beard Award Now Signals ‘Good Enough For Airline Catering’

When Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group started popping up in airports and putting its brand on Delta Air Lines meals I suggested it was trading its name and accepting lower quality. It had a brand to cash out on, but the brand meant less as a result. This is going to be true for any chef who enters an airport or licenses their name to an airline – except for Rick Bayless.

For an airline, branding with a chef’s name can signal their investment in food. It’s marketing to communicate to customers that they care about quality, not just spending part of their food budget on a name rather than quality. However for the chef it signals less of a concern with quality.

Before the pandemic American Airlines launched a James Beard Foundation partnership and that’s expanded recently. I haven’t had a chance to try the James Beard Foundation domestic first class meals yet, but a reader passes one along – and I think it makes my point about how the airline and the endorser trade reputations.

The reader thought the sauce on the chicken was quite good, though not at all Mediterranean (and neither were the fingerling potatoes) which seems odd given the pairing with hummus. On the other hand, there’s a bread plate. That’s progress!

There’s no question that the James Beard Foundation used to have some cache’, but now that they are putting their names on airline domestic meals, devaluing the whole enterprise. A James Beard award-winning chef now means ‘good enough for airline catering’.

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