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Peter Kagi: Gate Gourmet executive chef

By Maria Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

Before airline passengers can take their pick of entrees, each meal is created and tested to ensure that the taste buds of travelers are satisfied.

An array of such meals for Delta Air Lines passengers has been created in Gate Gourmet's test kitchen at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to Peter Kagi, the executive chef of the test kitchen.

Kagi said some of his responsibilities include designing new meals for Delta; working with Delta's celebrity chefs; updating, or adding to a database of recipes; and providing flight attendants with meal and plating sheets (MAPS).

"Every recipe for Delta Air Lines originates here, in my test kitchen," Kagi said.

According to Kagi, when Delta Air Lines decides to include a new entree on its menu, airline officials often communicate their ideas to him. He then designs approximately 20 meals for airline officials to taste. The meals are then narrowed down to three or four dishes, which Kagi fine tunes for a final tasting.

While conducting a tour of the 122,000-square-foot facility where his kitchen is located, Kagi recalled once designing a fruit parfait for Delta Air Lines. He said he learned that sprinkling granola on top of the dessert was not a good idea, because the granola got soggy over time. He redesigned the dessert, omitting the granola.

Kagi said that when he designs meals for Delta Air Lines, he has to keep in mind that the meals won't be served to passengers right away. "The challenge of our food is having it being cooked in our kitchen and reheated on our airlines, and finding something that pleases the 350 passengers in an aircraft," said Kagi.

"They [passengers] have become more sophisticated, because of the Food Network and different [cooking] shows," he said, noting how the media has exposed people to more variety in their meals. "We can put a lot more sophisticated items on a menu, and people know what it is."

Kagi said one of his duties is updating recipes based on new specifications, and adding new recipes to a database that informs chefs, worldwide, about the changes and additions to Delta Air Lines' meals.

When changes to the carrier's menu are made, Kagi said he has to prepare the meal and take a picture of it, write out the recipe and send it to various Gate Gourmet kitchens that prepare the meals.

"It [the recipe] has to be very specific, so everybody understands how it is supposed to look like, and taste like," said Kagi. "You have to be very precise."

In addition, Kagi said he provides flight attendants with meal and plating sheets (MAPS). MAPS include a picture of the entree, and instructions on how to serve the dish to passengers.

Kagi said he was born in Eschenbach, Switzerland. He said that earlier in life, he had his sights set on a different type of career. "My first choice was to be an electrical engineer," he said. "I went to work for a place and I didn't like it."

Though becoming a chef wasn't Kagi's first career choice, he said he always had a special interest in the art of cooking. "I always helped out my mom in the kitchen," he said.

According to Kagi, he became interested in cooking as a career because of the travel possibilities the field offered. In the 1970s, he was an apprentice for three years at Hotel Bahnhof, located in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, about two hours from his home town.

According to Gate Gourmet's web site, he finished third out of 70 apprentices there, and was trained in all forms of French cooking.

"I really became passionate about cooking; I really loved it," Kagi said.

Kagi said he moved to New York City when he saw an ad for a position at the Swiss Center. He arrived in the Big Apple on July 4, 1976, he said.

"I told my parents, 'I am going to the United States,' and they kind of thought I was crazy," Kagi said. "Yes, it was very intimidating for a little boy from a town of 5,000. It was quite a change."

According to Gate Gourmet's web site, for five years Kagi worked as a chef in various restaurants and hotels in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. He married in 1980, and decided to return to Switzerland for additional culinary training. From 1980 until 1986, Kagi worked under chefs in Basel, Switzerland, according to the web site. In 1986, Kagi and his wife returned to New York City.

Kagi said he took the position of catering supervisor at Swissair in 1986. Swissair was a customer of Gate Gourmet, which was called Dobbs International at the time, and the air carrier sent Kagi to Atlanta to supervise the catering operations Gate Gourmet was providing to Swissair.

Kagi said he joined the Gate Gourmet team, as executive chef, in 1990 and ran a whole kitchen.

According to the web site, he was promoted to account manager, overseeing work with seven major international airlines. He left Gate Gourmet in 1995 to pursue running his own restaurant. In 1999, he returned to Gate Gourmet, again as international accounts manager, and later became storeroom manager. He has held his current position since 2003.

Kagi said that aside from speaking Swiss-German, over the course of his career working in European and American kitchens, he has learned to speak English, French, Spanish and some Italian.

Kagi said he enjoys dining in new restaurants with his family, and likes to try foods outside his comfort zone.

Paella is one of his favorite dishes, Kagi said. "It's got all these wonderful ingredients," he said. "Chicken, shrimp and different vegetables."

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On the net:

Gate Gourmet: www.gategourmet.gategroupmember.com