Linton Hopkins is passionate about food. As the chef behind Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene Hopkins has plenty of experience working to bring local goods to the table for guests in a “farm-to-table” sort of environment. Converting that into the meals served on a plane has any number of challenges, each of which Hopkins has overcome to get his meals on to four routes covering approximately 500 plates each day. And, despite that it seems to beg such treatment, Hopkins truly believes that “farm-to-tray-table” can be a true change in the way people eat on board aircraft, not the punch line to a joke.
At a recent dinner hosted by Delta at Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins addressed the gathered group and discussed some of the challenges faced (both in airline catering and in the real world) and how he handles them.
Hopkins wants to see the farm-to-tray-table catering expand to more routes and eventually to other catering sites. That’s a tall order, mostly based on logistics of acquiring the ingredients and also the prep/packaging/service on the plane. Ramping up the small farm operations to be able to supply more raw ingredients takes time and a long-term commitment from the buyers. Getting meals prepared and in to the airline catering world is not trivial either. Eugene Kitchens is a separate operation Hopkins created solely to deal with the purchasing, warehousing, preparation and delivery of meals to Gate Gourmet at the Atlanta Airport. Those daily deliveries eventually make their way on to the flights.
The human element is perhaps the most significant factor to Hopkins. It is not just about acquiring a bunch of ingredients and putting them together to make a meal. He leans regularly on long-term friendships to help source nearly all of his ingredients. When cooking for 50-100 guests a night (the restaurant is not particularly large) the sourcing is somewhat less challenging. When it is 500 seats per night and being out of an item is much less well tolerated the supply chain becomes stressed. Rather than sourcing all the charcuterie and cheeses from a single vendor, for example, Hopkins relies on many smaller suppliers. They are providing 10-12 pounds of product to Hopkins and Delta daily, in addition to their regular output. For small operators such volumes can be challenging.
Or it can save the company. One local supplier had hit the big time, moving from selling preserves in a local farmer’s market to stocking product in Whole Foods. For the two-person operation, however, it was the beginning of the end. Between promotional work and the shift in demand the two couldn’t keep up and were ready to fold the business. Instead their entire production run – still small batches – is now purchased by Eugene Kitchen and included in the on-board product. Everyone but the Whole Foods customers wins with that approach.
Hopkins shared many other stories about small operations where the support first of his kitchen and now the Delta catering has helped to buoy operations. Whether it is a peach farmer in central Georgia or the benne seed supplier who still collects them the old-fashioned way as the pods explode rather than the newer sesame seeds which are easier to harvest (they apparently don’t explode out of the pods), Hopkins is doing everything he can to support those operations and help ensure that aspect of the food chain:
Here I am as a human being who only wants to eat good food…. This food is sacred; this food comes from friends of mine.
And the small farm, heritage crops provide that to him. Delta affords him the opportunity to spread it to others as well.
There are, of course, differences in the way the food tastes on board the flight versus on the ground. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to be in the BusinessElite cabin on a flight from Atlanta to London, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam and I don’t expect that will change any time soon. But starting with spectacular food on the ground means you’ve at least got a fighting chance. And this truly qualifies.
Separate from his commentary on the process behind producing the meals Hopkins also provided advice to the group on his preferred way to explore a new city: Find the farmers’ market. And not only to have fresh food available for your personal dining, but also in hopes of finding chefs combing the stands for the local goods which will grace their tables that night. Hopkins encouraged us to speak with those chefs, to follow them back to their restaurants and dine with them. Sure, that’s maybe a little creepy and stalker-ish, and I’m not too sure how you identify chefs in the market versus others. But I bet the meals are spectacular if you can make it happen.
n.b.- As noted above Delta hosted this event; I was one of the invited attendees. And it was delicious.
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