From ceviche to bechamel: How Brazil's smallest airline competes

On tonight's menu, there's plantain ceviche in coconut milk with squid and shrimp. Tomorrow's might include beef bourguignon with acai or lamb stew with Israeli couscous. If that doesn't whet your appetite, maybe the Brazilian moqueca and squash ravioli in a bechamel sauce will. 

While those dishes could be on the menu from the tony new restaurant around the corner in Brooklyn, they are in fact the creation of Thomas Troisgros, the Brazilian-French chef of Michelin-starred Olympe in Rio de Janeiro. And they're served on a tray at 30,000 feet.  

There are few meals less appealing than those served aloft. Avianca Brasil is betting the gastronomical delights and the Troisgros name -- synonymous with a high-end restaurant empire -- will woo wealthy Brazilians.  

The Sao Paulo-based airline is the last of the Brazil-based companies to start flying to New York, entering an already crowded market. Comfortable seats and state-of-the-art entertainment systems aren't enough anymore as carriers fiercely compete to seduce the lucrative business-class travelers. Airline food, infamous for its often dubious look, feel and consistency, seemed like an easy way to stand out.  

"On long flights, what you remember is the food," Avianca Brasil's Chief Executive Officer Frederico Pedreira said in an interview in New York after the company's inaugural flight to the city in December.  

Specialties from Troisgros, whose Olympe is a constant fixture on the world's best restaurant lists, are now available on Avianca's international flights. The airline started its daily nonstop flight from Sao Paulo to New York in December bringing its total international destinations to four, including Miami, Bogota and Santiago.  

But a Michelin-style dining experience doesn't come easy, especially when prepared within the confines of an airplane kitchen. And then there is the altitude, which is known to affect taste buds and the sense of smell. While for some dishes an extra pinch of salt was enough to balance the flavor, others have been trickier.  

"A new finding we have had is that peppers tend to get even spicier due to the altitude and pressure. We realized that when we first tasted the entree, the ceviche," Avianca's Pedreira said. The recipe has since been altered to suit milder palates.  

Initial customer feedback has been "great," Pedreira said, with the desserts seeming to be the favorites, "even for those who do not have a sweet tooth." They include a New York style cheesecake and coconut sago with roasted pineapple.  

Even though rolling out an exotic fare or enlisting the help of a renowned chef can hardly be considered cutting-edge innovation in the aviation industry, it is true that a satisfying meal is one of the top priorities for passengers on a long international flight.  

"Good food is almost a requirement for many people because beyond three to four hours, if you don't pack your own food, you will be obligated to either order something or have something that you are served," Brian Foley, a business-aircraft consultant, said in a phone interview. "It's important for an airline to consider giving a good meal experience because it takes many economy seats to equal the revenue generated by one business or first class seat."  

Whether the food can help Avianca Brasil grab market share is another question. Also called Oceanair Linhas Aereas Ltda., the airline is a privately held carrier that has only recently veered into international routes, competing with larger rivals Latam Airlines Group SA, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA and Azul SA, not to mention U.S. carriers, from Delta Air Lines Inc. to American Airlines Group Inc.  

"A flight from point A to point B is very generic, and if an airline doesn't try to differentiate itself from others, it may lose market share," Foley said. "If gimmicks work, why not?"

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