Up in the Air
121 dining options take off—literally
The inflight catering group that grew out of the North Salem restaurant purchased more than a dozen of these high-loader trucks and are always watched by security.
One-Twenty-One restaurant sits peacefully along a North Salem country road, serving a tidy run of meals every day to locals, equestrians, even well-heeled jet-setters. But what few of those diners realize is that some items on the restaurant’s menu—the Soy Glazed Short Ribs, for example—are also served by One-Twenty-One to diners 35,000 feet in the air.
In 2008, a regular diner at the restaurant told co-owner Michele Savino about a project he was working on at Oxford Airport in Connecticut. “You should be catering meals for private aviation,” he told Savino, who with Peter DeVito owns the restaurant. And so they did. The first job entailed providing meals for a UN delegation heading out of the country from Stewart Airport in upstate New York.
Soon the small eatery was providing meals for other international delegations, including top governmental figures from Zimbabwe, in the US for an Ebola conference; the prime minister of Malaysia; and members of the Kuwaiti government. “Now when the UN is in session, we are very busy,” says Savino.
Next came dozens of VIP travelers, who seek fine food for their globetrotting lifestyles. One rock star craves 121’s Asian dishes. A global diplomat asks 121 chefs to adhere to his vegan diet. Another entertainment celebrity puts among his dining requests yellow and green jelly beans. Meanwhile, many Middle Eastern travelers demand Halal-style cooking, which follows Islamic dietary guidelines, with no alcohol and no pork. “We have an entire kitchen devoted to just this,” says Savino.
One-Twenty-One chef Beck Bolender is the architect of all 10,000 daily meals that 121 Aviation provides. However, none of this cooking takes place in the North Salem kitchen, which is far from the flights departing from Westchester County Airport, Oxford, Stewart, or JFK, where this past March, One-Twenty-One opened a 45,000-square-foot kitchen and food-preparation facility to service the eight commercial airlines who have tapped them to provide their first- and business-class meals—including meals for airlines such as KLM and Kuwait Airlines.
“It’s a real challenge to cook and prepare a meal, then to cool it down, truck it onto the airplane, where it is reheated and served,” says Savino. On top of that, each meal must be sealed, checked by the Transportation Safety Administration, handled only by employees who have passed extensive background checks, then driven two miles from 121’s JFK facility, through a high-security gate, onto the tarmac, and to the waiting plane. “Now you understand why we have to charge $21 for a quart of milk,” says Savino.
Loading a few hundred finely prepared meals onto a plane, of course, is no easy feat. It requires refrigerated, high-loader truckers (they have 15 of them), a full-time, round-the-clock staff of highly trained chefs and hospitality professionals, Port Authority clearance, US Custom clearance, FDA approval, and a wide variety of meal options. “We have a room in the JFK facility that remains at 52 degrees all the time,” says Savino of the ideal temperature for storing food to reheat.
“The meals we provide to airline diners is top-quality, made fresh every day,” says chef Bolender, who grew up in North Salem and got the attention of executive chef DeVito when he worked at the nearby Peach Lake Market. “We are setting a higher industry standard.”
Asked if she has any plans to scrap the restaurant business to focus entirely on culinary aviation, Savino answers emphatically: “No, we are not going anywhere. This restaurant started it all, and we have a great following.”