Airport food in Los Angeles has been so bad for so long it’s no longer brought up in polite society. Only at LAX could the 2010 arrival of Pink’s hot dogs have been welcomed.
“It’s like the smog: Why complain? Everybody knows,” chef Mark Peel told me last week. Since we began having to schlep wretched little bags of food on the aircraft or starve, the smell of rancid oil and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has made the LAX experience unpleasant in all five senses. But all that is about to change.
LAX is opening its doors starting this year to some of the city’s signature restaurants, including Larder at Tavern, Cole’s and Ford’s Filling Station. A rotating cast of food-truck vendors including Kogi’s is expected to operate out of a space with a mock truck decor. Peel, who closed Campanile on La Brea Avenue in the fall after 23 years, is opening an airport version of the high-class restaurant.
The lucky terminals include Tom Bradley International and Terminal 4, home to American Airlines. What makes this of interest outside foodie circles is that, unlike other gentrification schemes, it will not cost all the little people their jobs. The city, through the Unite Here Local 11 union, will retrain workers displaced from eateries such as Burger King and Chili’s to work in the new culinary palaces.
Last week, I took a turn through the clattering kitchen where the training has been underway since October. The kitchen, along with a cafeteria, is on the ground floor, beneath the struts that thrust the flying-saucer themed restaurant Encounter into the air above LAX. Inside, 52 cooks from South Los Angeles, Carson, Inglewood and other airport-adjacent neighbourhoods were practicing haute cuisine. Workers in white toques and chef jackets grated lemon zest, snipped herbs and squeezed potato croquettes out of pastry tubes.
Peel, who has appeared on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, dropped by to give an inspirational speech. “This is where we’re trying to give people a much better first impression of LA, and you're it,” he said.
Leanna Billman told me the closest she got to cooking on the Burger King fry line was flipping frozen chicken strips on the grill. Now she’s learning to braise meat, shuck oysters and slice vegetables in fancy cuts such as paysanne and rondelle.
“Everything we eat is fattening.” Peel said a modern kitchen staff should understand the importance of sustainability along with more traditional culinary skills. Peel’s first culinary job was fry cook at Cindy’s, “where the 605 meets the Pomona Freeway,” Peel said. “Everybody's got to start somewhere.”
The LAX Campanile will have sit-down dining as well as takeout, Peel told a small group gathered around one of the prep tables, prompting a teaching chef from Los Angeles Trade Technical College to joke he’d have to find a way around security so he could eat there. But passengers on average have only 12 minutes to get in and out of the terminal. Peel said he could still serve high-end dishes.
This kind of food is not going to come cheap. The retrained workers will command better wages, and more staff will be needed in the kitchen; a spokeswoman said the union expects its membership to double. Rest assured, LAX will always have its burgers with fries. “There's always going to be a place for fast food,” Peel said. “But we have an opportunity for much greater diversity. ... The way we’re going to do that is with a highly trained, motivated and intelligent work force.”