Molly Brandt is the Innovation Chef – North America for the onboard catering and food services company gategroup. She collaborates with a team of external and internal chefs at Studio Ellen, a Chicago test kitchen that opened officially in November 2022. Built for recipe testing, brainstorming and innovating, Studio Ellen also serves as a venue for menu presentations.
“It’s like a think tank although there is recipe development and collaboration based on that,” explains Brandt of Studio Ellen.
“I have been with gategroup for about a year and a half and I had no airline catering experience before that…gategroup made a concerted effort to find talent that wasn’t clouded by past experiences working in the airline industry. They wanted me to not have any pre-existing notion about what airline catering could or should be,” says Brandt, who has 27 years of experience in the food and beverage industry.
She sees her mission as that of a food evangelist: “I’m very passionate about what I do and I’m really passionate about outcomes. My mission is to really see some change and bring hospitality, from a culinary perspective, back into airline catering.”
Brandt compares her role to that of a fashion designer who listens to clients and develops ideas that can eventually be mass-produced. That involves looking at industry trends and the needs and values of clients.
“I gather information and then create a strategy in partnership with our customer experience team,” she explains.
“Creativity is a niche. My niche is original content…this is huge for gategroup and we’re seeing a lot of traction with this,” says Brandt.
The collaborative studio approach involves leveraging the expertise of a team of chefs to influence and develop airline catering for United Airlines. Participants include Kevin Fink, a zero-waste and sustainability specialist; Caribbean cuisine and pastries expert Tavel Bristol-Joseph; Erick Williams who has expertise in mentoring, inclusivity and the cuisine of the American South; Anna and David Posey of the Elske Michelin-starred restaurant; and Monica Saxena, an expert on Indian regional cuisines.
“It’s imperative to get these different perspectives and a broad range of diversity. We are executing something that’s different and applies to how you want to fly and what you want to eat today,” says Brandt, emphasising the value of working as a team.
“The external chefs have their own niche. They have their own successful restaurants. These are not the same things as large-scale, airline catering. So it’s important that these chefs also have access to United, who can answer questions about quality control measures and which ingredients are permitted. It’s creative and challenging for chefs to come up with something that fits all the guidelines,” she adds.
The chefs involved in Studio Ellen look at issues such as how to improve sustainability, how to utilise by-products and how to improve the flavour profile of dishes. That could involve reducing the use of ‘centre of the plate’ proteins such as beef and developing dishes that appeal to Gen Z passengers.
“All of the design chefs in North America have a dotted line to me. If they’re stuck for ideas they contact me. I have an in-house app where they make these requests with me. I spend time in the test kitchen and I develop something completely new for them, bespoke, and it helps them move through the rest of their menu design process,” says Brandt, who details recipes to the gram and photographs each stage of recipe development.
“The biggest challenge is not to be too concerned about whether or not everything that I make will be absolutely possible to do. I would be limiting my own creativity instead of helping to facilitate a new thought process. Throughout this last year and a half, I have learned much about the operation, functionality and equipment of airline kitchens. My recipes and approach have changed based on that,” says the chef who acknowledges that what most passengers want is a nutritious, delicious and satisfying meal that is recognisable to them.
Ingredients that are high in umami and ingredients that have a lot of internal moisture content are going to do very well,” recognises Brandt. From receiving a customer brief, it takes approximately six months for the Studio Ellen to collaborate with regional teams to develop a dish and get it aboard United aircraft.
“There’s a very large team and many people along the way are testing and tasting and making sure that dishes are subjectively the same, wherever they are prepared. What I’m looking for is balance of flavour – so balance of acid and umami and seasoning and heat,”
The Studio Ellen team receives feedback from United, including flight attendant comments, data and social media reports with passenger feedback. All of that feeds into recipe development.
“I would say that there is a big push to get everything really back to where it was and better,” she says of post-pandemic airline catering and Studio Ellen’s role within that.