Food by VICE

Two of LA's Best Chefs Want to Make Airplane Food a Hell of a Lot Better

Recently, Shook and Dotolo of Los Angeles’s Animal and Stowell—known for Seattle’s Tavolàta—swapped kitchens. The idea was masterminded by Delta Airlines, which says it is intent on bringing local food, a.k.a. good food, to the air.

by Alex Swerdloff
Dec 14 2015, 3:00pm

All photos courtesy of Delta

What happens when you take a chef out of his kitchen and plunk him down in another chef's restaurant, one located in a distant city, in a region that has completely different products and traditions? It's a pretty surefire way to teach a lesson about the importance of locavorism—a lesson that Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, and Ethan Stowell are all well-equipped to teach.

Recently, Shook and Dotolo—of Los Angeles's Animal, Trois Mec, Son of a Gun, and Jon and Vinny's, just to name a few of their well-regarded restaurants—and Stowell—known for Seattle's Tavolàta and How To Cook A Wolf, among many more—swapped kitchens. The idea was masterminded by, oddly enough, Delta Air Lines, which says it is intent on bringing local food, a.k.a. good food, to the air. Delta recently started a new in-flight dining program and hired Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins and master sommelier Andrea Robinson as culinary ambassadors, hoping to elevate the dining experience on their planes.

We know what you're thinking: plane food can't possibly get any damn worse. But Shook, Dotolo, Stowell, Hopkins, and Robinson seem to feel that bringing things back to basics by serving food that is local to the place of the plane's departure is one no-brainer step in the right direction. To bring that point home, they left home. Shook and Dotolo went to Seattle first, where they shopped locally at Ballard Farmer's Market and then cooked a meal at Tavolàta. Soon thereafter, Stowell boarded a flight and went to Animal, where they hit International Marine Products and other favorite purveyors of the Animal dudes. A grand meal followed.

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We wanted to learn more about what it was like to swap kitchens and go deep in the food culture of another chef's city, so we gave Jon and Vinny a call.

MUNCHIES: We'd love to hear more about your Swap Chef experience. How did you come to be involved? Shook and Dotolo: We actually kind of got involved through Linton Hopkins—we won Best New Chef the same year he did and had just a great relationship with him. We've really admired a lot of what he's done. Neither of us really knew Ethan that well in the beginning but after we all got to spend about a week together, we had a really good time. It was fun—always cool to see what other people are doing.

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So what did you want to show Chef Ethan about the LA food scene? It must be weird to approach your hometown from an outsider's perspective. LA is such a big place, and we literally got one day to show him around the city before dinner. So we were very pigeonholed about what we could choose, but we tried to choose some of the top importers and distributors of the best possible product that we get here in Southern California. We went to The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which is definitely in the top three or four cheese shops in the United States that I know of, that I've been to, if not number one. I think Ethan was a little bit shocked by how little shellfish we have here. I mean, up there, everywhere we went we were sucking down oysters. It was literally one place after the next. It's always cool to see other cities.

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What are the biggest challenges of cooking in another chef's kitchen? I think one thing is just expectations, and everybody's thought process is different, and trying to get on the same page about how you want to execute a dinner sometimes can be a little tricky. But we're mature adults and we can come together and not waste anybody's time. Ethan's just as busy as us—he has even more restaurants than us and he was basically able to give us anything that we needed. And we tried to return the experience to him as well when he came down here. I think that like a lot of chefs that are of the caliber of Jon and Ethan and I, you adapt quickly to any type of scenario. You get put into a lot of different circumstances and we sort of adapt and overcome any obstacles—and here there really were none. We purveyed all of our products that we needed up there easily. It was actually a pretty smooth process.

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Did you feel any reluctance in associating your names with airline food? Well, we're not cooking on planes yet, but Linton is cooking on planes, and he's making the majority of the food that's going out of [Delta's] Atlanta flights in first-class. The quality of what he's making for the planes is far superior to what I've seen on a lot of flights that I've been on. He is actually physically making a lot of the product and putting it on the planes—that's amazing. [And now airlines] want to focus on, why should a chef in Atlanta create food that's gonna come out of LA? You need someone from LA to create the food that's coming out of the airport in LA. So it's a very interesting approach. If you're going to put your name on it, it better be up to your standards.

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Do you see this as a growing trend? Do you think other airlines are going to be approaching local chefs to curate their in-flight experiences? I think it's already happening. There's hesitance, I think, with a lot of chefs trying to do airline stuff because of what airline food is right now. I also think in the 90s and early 2000s a celebrity chef—and by that I mean an actual TV chef—maybe would be providing you with those food items, but this isn't what the airlines are going for now. They're not looking for people with TV presence. They're looking for chefs that when you eat something and then look back to the menu, you say, "Who made this again?" They're looking for that kind of reaction rather than the sort of like, "Oh, Michael Chiarello made this food, it must be good." It's a different experience they're going for now. It's just like what Swap Chef is about—it's local chefs.

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They serve millions of people every year on those planes. I think that they're just really trying to make the flight more enjoyable.

Thanks for speaking with us, guys.