For most of us, airport dining elicits memories of struggling through security, searching hopefully for a place to eat, then finally settling on a depressing basket of Azian Zing® chicken tenders at Buffalo Wild Wings. But if you talk to chef Michael Coury, you begin to realize it doesn’t have to be that way.
As the head concept chef for OTG Management, Coury is the driving force behind gastronomically-enhanced hubs like LaGuardia’s Terminal D (whose outposts include Jim Lahey’s Crust, and Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson’s Bisoux) and JFK’s Terminals 2 and 3 (now home to Jason Denton’s Bar Brace and Andrew Carmellini’s Croque Madame, respectively).
Chef Coury’s concept restaurants have brought some of the world’s top culinary talent to airports in ten markets across North America, from New York to Tucson. Below, he talks about attracting big-name chefs, keeping steak knives off planes, and combating airport food’s bad wrap.
Airports don’t traditionally connote fine dining. How did you convince such well-respected chefs to get involved?
When we first approached some of the chefs we wanted to work with, that was always their big obstacle: “I’m in an airport?” But if you look around at the [potential] customers, they’re sophisticated businesspeople, or they’re traveling for pleasure. Why shouldn’t they be able to have a good meal? I was fortunate to have worked previously with guys like [‘inoteca owner] Jason Denton and [Del Posto chef] Mark Ladner, so it was easy to get them involved because they knew I wouldn’t bastardize their brands. We work with these chefs to create the concept, and once the restaurant opens, [OTG manages it], but the partnership is ongoing. The chefs consult on seasonal menu changes, and we send our managers to work and train [with them] in their restaurants.
[O]ur chefs’ knives are tethered and locked down in the kitchens. People will say, “Oh my god, this knife is nailed to the table.” Well, yes. It has to be for security.
How does an in-airport restaurant function differently from a regular one?
It’s not so different—we just have great restaurants that happen to be in airports. The philosophy is still simplicity, great ingredients, and hiring high-caliber people. Each of our restaurants is independent, with its own chef, its own kitchen, and its own staff. Fresh deliveries are brought in daily. In all the markets that we’re in, I work with different vendors and specialty people to get great market items, and we use the same vendors that other high-profile restaurateurs use.
So, let’s take Andrew Carmellini. Every person that he uses in the way of fish, produce, and meat at the Dutch? We source from them, too. He currently consults on Croque Madame [in JFK Terminal 2], Victory Grill [LaGuardia Terminal C], and on Minnow, which will open later this year at LaGuardia Terminal D. The meat program at all of our restaurants at JFK, LaGuardia, and Philadelphia is all Pat LaFrieda, and we use prime beef. So if you’re in Manhattan having a great steak at Porter House from Michael Lomonaco, you can find the exact same steak in our airport.
So you don’t necessarily feel like you’re in an airport at all. Are there any giveaways?
The only real difference is our chefs’ knives are tethered and locked down in the kitchens. People will say, “Oh my god, this knife is nailed to the table.” Well, yes. It has to be for security, because we’re in an airport. But if you think about it, why would you need to run around with a knife longer than your arm? If you do, then we have bigger problems.
And what about the customers? It’s tough to eat a steak with a plastic butter knife.
At the table, the knives are plastic, but they’re chromed. They look like real knives. And I’ll tell you: Those things are sharp. They’re sharper than any steak knife I’ve gotten in any steakhouse ever.
Realistically, do people really have time to enjoy a decadent meal before or between flights?
If you have a long layover, definitely. But at our sit-down restaurants, travelers can order items to go, or they can stop by one of our Food Hall locations or Cibo Express stores to quickly grab a burger, a great slice, or a vegan sandwich.
Do you think the location of your restaurants is going to affect peoples’ flight itineraries?
I hope so. We’ve laughed about, “Wouldn’t that be great if people planned their trips based on what airports they can eat in?” For now, my top picks would be Terminal 5 at JFK, Terminals C and D at LaGuardia, and Concourse G in Minneapolis.