Written by Henry M. Holden
On Feb. 12, 121 In-flight Catering celebrated its grand opening at Waterbury Oxford Airport (OXC) in Oxford, Conn. 121 In-flight Catering is the latest culinary venture from owner/ Michele and Joe Savino and executive chef Peter DeVito.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997, DeVito worked in upscale restaurants in New York City, Connecticut and California and as a chef on a yacht. He’s also been an executive chef, opening several restaurants in Westchester County, N.Y.
Business partners since 2000, the three restaurateurs also own the award-winning 121 Restaurant, The North Salem Market and 121 at The Hammond, all located in North Salem, N.Y.
The new affiliate provides full-service aviation catering as well as a ground facility. The 9,000-square-foot location includes an à la carte restaurant upstairs, and a 5,000-square-foot in-flight catering facility downstairs.
“The grand opening was an opportunity for people in aviation to come and look at our new facility and sample some of our quality food,” said DeVito. “We invited people in business and private aviation, important customers from our North Salem Market and restaurant and people from the surrounding community to share hors d’oeuvres and champagne. Around 400 people showed up, making it a big success.”
Sharing expertise leads to success
DeVito said the design of the facility allows for space reserved for complimentary seminars for anyone working in business aviation.
“We’re going to some of our clients and asking them to send their entire flight department up to our facility, so they can improve the quality of their food service to their passengers,” he said. “We’ll show them how we’ve been using certain equipment, how to reheat an item and keep it moist, and how to use shapes and different elements to make the plate really jump out at the passenger. We feel it will develop loyalty with their account if we can show them how to make our food exceptional. The better they do, the better we’ll do.”
Naming the company 121 In-flight Catering was a unique coincidence and not related to the Federal Aviation Regulations.
“We named our first restaurant ‘121’ because it was located on Route 121 in North Salem,” DeVito said. “Back then, we had no idea about in-flight catering.”
121 In-flight Catering serves 19 airports in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“Our client base is anyone working in business aviation,” said DeVito. “We work with large commercial operations, smaller flight departments and people who just own one business jet. We’re trying to create a boutique-style service. I’ve worked in some great restaurants, and I’m transitioning that style of service to the business jet. We’re going to mirror the upscale-style restaurant to the business jet, together with the packaging, storage and transportation. We’ve had to learn that aspect of the business—how to prepare and serve certain food items. At the end of the day, we’re making food with the same quality and ingredients and with the same passion that we have in our restaurants.”
New menu concepts
Certain aspects of catering to a business jet are challenging.
“I’ll get a call from a flight attendant saying, ‘I’ve been doing this same flight for a while, and I’m really looking for something new for my passengers,'” said DeVito. “Our chefs have their ears to the street. They know what’s going on in New York City, they know which ingredients are fresh, they know which fish is perfect right now, so we’re able to collaborate with these people and give our customers a new experience.
Some large corporations are flying the same CEO several times a week, and they’ve been doing so for a year or more with the same menu.
“They’re looking for new ideas and new menu concepts, things that will work well on the airplane, and we’re looking to give them a new experience,” said DeVito. “We’re pushing the envelope of the in-flight culinary experience. In a restaurant, we can make a beautiful dish. We’ll get beautiful morels in, and we can prepare them in various ways. However, on the airplane, we can have beautiful morels, but they can only be reheated through a convection oven or in a microwave oven. They don’t have a lot of refrigeration space on board; we have to decide which components don’t need refrigeration so we can reserve space in the refrigerator for the items that can go bad. We’re working with some Fortune 100 companies, and the item they’re most interested in is that perfect meal. As a chef, that’s a great challenge.”
To push the envelope of in-flight catering, creating the dishes, the menus and the packaging is challenging.
“There are lots of menu items that are standard fare for in-flight catering on private jets, and they include vegetable crudités, cheese and cracker trays and sliced fruit trays,” said DeVito. “We do those items very well. For example, we use pattypan squash, organic vegetables and baby zucchini. Even with those items, we’re trying to pioneer changes within in-flight culinary experiences, but at the end of the day, it’s still pretty standard and simple to do.”
DeVito said where 121 In-flight Catering separates itself from the rest of the industry is in the type and quality of the ingredients.
“I think that’s one of the things that really make us unique,” he said. “We have excellent chefs, so we always have new ingredients and new things on hand. There’s a lot of creative energy in our company, and I think that’s our best asset.”
DeVito said they take things to the next level with bulk-packed items.
“These may include a fillet mignon that the flight attendant receives in an open tin, or lobster, truffles, pâté de foie gras and caviar,” he said. “We’re preparing the delicate foods that I used to cook in the city restaurants for in-flight passengers. That’s really challenging. We’re doing it, and it takes some thinking outside the box to excel.”
He said some they have to consider some things.
“There are things we have to be conscious of—packaging, heating and handling instructions are very important,” he said. “For example, there’s usually one cabin attendant up there, and he or she may have 10 or 12 people to serve. Often the flight attendants are very restricted with the amount of space they have, or with the size of the cooking surface available to them on the airplane. It’s challenging to get all the food to come out at the same time and cooked perfectly. In the kitchen, we’re thinking about those challenges and overcoming them. We want the cabin attendant to receive food that is as user-friendly as possible. It’s a fun challenge, and we’re fortunate, because we’re having a blast.”
For more information, visit [http://www.121inflight.com].