When JetBlue approached Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie in 2013 to work on food for its Mint service, it was a brazen choice. Farmerie made a name for himself with envelope-pushing entrees at his five restaurants, including Public and Saxon + Parole. Could someone who once put kangaroo and blood sausage on his menus adapt to the wide-ranging and less-adventurous palates of travelers?
Mint, which began flights out of Boston in March, is the carrier’s version of first class and features flat-bed seats and amenity kits. Until JetBlue launched Mint, it was best known for serving limitless bags of Terra Chips and animal crackers. To change that, Farmerie spent a year working on small plates for Mint customers, ending up with 60 options for dinner, brunch, and red-eye flights. He works in airport kitchens training staff to make meals to his specifications.
We sat down with Farmerie when he was in Boston for the launch of Mint out of Logan Airport.
Globe: When you say the food for JetBlue is cooked here, do you have a kitchen at Logan where food is prepared?
Farmerie: Not at Logan, but just off site. Probably half a mile away is where the food is produced. I think a lot of people have the misconception that things are frozen or that they are made way ahead of time. It’s usually made within an hour or two of boarding. I can’t speak to all airlines because I know that’s not the case with all airlines.
Globe: How did you approach putting together a menu for an airline?
Farmerie: They had already come up with the idea that all meals would be a trio of three different dishes. There were five or six dishes to choose from. What I wanted to do was a lot of fresh, light, and bright. Anything that was familiar or more of a comfort dish I thought had to have quite a unique twist on it. We really wanted to push with some interesting flavors. Our food is pretty healthy. We require them to do a lot of work in the air so there’s a lot of finishing touches that happen.
Globe: Were you under cost constraints?
Farmerie: Originally, no. I asked, “What’s the budget and what do we want to spend per head?” Because it was a brand new project they didn’t know. They said something to the effect of, “Let your conscience be your guide.” We want this to be really interesting and delicious, but we don’t want it to be excessive. But not a single dish had to be reworked because of costs.
Globe: Did you have to train the flight attendants?
Farmerie: The flight attendants came into Saxon + Parole in New York. We talked about the food, the philosophy, and the concepts so that they could make sure that they were a part of this. We brought them into the restaurant to show how we train for hospitality, just the small things.
Globe: Was it a learning curve for you?
Farmerie: For everybody, and I thought that was cool. JetBlue was very honest, they said ‘We’ve never done this. We have no idea how this is going to work.’
Globe: Does the menu change?
Farmerie: A lot. It’s based on a lot of things. Eastbound and westbound are always different, so you won’t get the same meal on the same trip, then red eye and brunch. There’s four different meals that they’re running all at the same time and that changes every three months. We have a lot of moving parts.
Globe: You’re trusting the people who are cooking the food to have some skill.
Farmerie: It’s not dumbed down. It’s very hands-on; we work with these chefs a lot.
Globe: Have you had particular hits and misses? Things that you thought were going to be amazing that just didn’t fly?
Farmerie: Yes. I did two different terrines and people wouldn’t even order it, so I think that might have been passed that threshold a little bit. It’s funny, the big hits are almost predictable, like when we did the five spice braised short rib. When we do the hamburger, it’s a huge hit. I think only one or two other airlines have cracked the code on how to do them. We figured it out. We have a sauce that surrounds the burger so it actually insulates it from overcooking. But don’t tell. That’s our secret.