Living the good life in Business/First

It's a tough job being pampered by Continental, but someone's gotta do it.

first class 88 (photo credit: )
first class 88
(photo credit: )
This is not aimed at hard-working stiffs who save up one agora after another in order to take a well-deserved and hard-earned trip to see that part of the world beyond our borders. It is not even aimed at those of you who have managed to put aside a very substantial sum of money to take not only yourselves but your wives/husbands and any number of children with you. The reason for this is because it's a safe assumption that you misfortunates will be flying economy class. No, this is not for you. It's aimed at those select few among us who might decide on an impulse to fly... let's say, to Houston, for a couple of excellent Texas steak dinners and then return to the daily grind as though it was nothing special. Like me. I suppose that for the sake of honest disclosure, I should say straight out that I didn't pay for this trip. Along with several other local journalists, I was the pampered guest of Continental Airlines on its Business/First class section. I might add in all fairness that we weren't the only ones flying Business/First. The section of about 50 seats was filled with Israeli and American businessmen who were presumably not flying to the US for a good meal. Our group, however, was on its way to the company's headquarters in Houston for a two-day trip that included dinners at two restaurants owned by Chef Michael Cordua, who, among his many achievements, belongs to Continental Airlines Congress of Chefs. The Congress of Chefs in the US includes 12 top chefs from all over the country, who meet twice a year to discuss the Business/First menu on domestic flights, and the food presentation on all Continental flights. Israel has its own panel of experts who advise Continental on kosher food. One of them, Chef Mika Sharon, who has aired her own cooking program on Channel 10 and owns the popular Libra restaurant in Tel Aviv, accompanied us on the tour. We actually began the festivities the night before with a succulent grilled New York strip steak served in porcelain dishes. Those in the section who for one reason or another do not eat steak at 1 a.m. had their choice of roasted duck, halibut bouillabaisse or ravioli filled with cheese and basil. Even the after-dinner coffee was served in porcelain. One in the morning might not have been the nutritionally proper hour for such a meal, but I didn't complain. There was no real reason to complain because I was able to sleep undisturbed for many hours afterward. This, thanks to the seat which moved and stretched and contorted until it miraculously extended to 170 degree angle, only 10 short of my bed at home. Furthermore, there was enough seat for my entire body, from head to toe. It must have helped that there was a distance of 140 centimeters between me and the chair ahead of me. After landing in Newark and switching planes for the second leg of the journey, we arrived in Houston in the late morning. We settled into our hotel rooms and were shuttled off to Continental Airlines headquarters to meet its president, Jeffery Smisek. According to his biography, Smisek received his B.A. summa cum laude from Princeton University and then went to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude. I point out these achievements only because it's hard to describe the impression he conveys in person - of being very bright, quick and articulate. Although superficial impressions are obviously not always reliable, he also appears to be modest and down to earth. The same applied to many of the other Continental executives and employees we met along the way. Smisek told us right off that all the American airline companies are in serious trouble because of spiraling fuel prices. A barrel of oil that cost $50 at the beginning of 2007 escalated to $113 toward the end of the year. Fuel, he continued, was the company's single largest expense. Given the domestic competition from small, local airlines, none of the large ones make money from the US market anymore. Nevertheless, the companies must have a domestic system to feed their international traffic, said Smisek. He added that over the past 10 years, of the six big American airline companies currently in the market, all have shrunk except Continental, which grew by 16 percent. Smisek added that the company has also put in orders for 25 new Boeing 787s, which are 20 percent more fuel efficient than the current 767s. I was deeply upset to hear that the company doesn't make money from those of us who fly economy class (I include myself in this group despite my sudden, ill-deserved and short-lived rise in fortune). "Our airline is a business airline," said Smisek. "We don't make money on leisure travel. We make all our money on the business traveler." Hence, the porcelain, the comfortable and spacious seats, the specially prepared food, the Congress of Chefs, etc. "We review our food twice a year," Smisek said. "Since we own our own catering, we buy in huge volume and can purchase wines that would be too expensive for other airlines. We pay more, but we think we are repaid in customer loyalty." Because it owns its own kitchens, Continental is also the only major US airline that provides meals for economy class passengers on domestic flights. Having completed the theoretical business of the day, we prepared for the practical work we had come all this way to do. The work included dinners at the Churrascos restaurant the first night and at Americas, the second. Given that I have never written a food review in my life, I will refrain from describing the tenderness of the steak or the texture of the chocolate truffle cake. But in case even a single reader has been moved by this report to fly to Houston for a Texas steak, here is what you can expect at the Americas.
  • First course: Marineros with Crab Cake: corn-smoked crab fingers with herbed yucca polenta and jalapeno lime sauce served with crab cake.
  • Second course: Ethereally light quail taquitos
  • Entrees: Choose among b eef medallion, stilton sauce and Portobello fries; pan-seared chicken, garlic, peppers and saffron with bail over angel hair pasta; pan-seared red snapper, shrimp and jumbo lump crab meat with a citrus habanero beurre blanc.
  • Dessert: Choose among vanilla caked laced throughout with three sweet creams topped with a light meringue; chocolate truffle cake with chocolate soufflé and chocolate ganache; golden caramelized vanilla crème brulee. As a card-carrying member of Weight Watchers, I am prevented from disclosing the choices I made. However, I confess that I did not weigh the portions. The owner of the restaurants, Chef Michael Cordua, was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and graduated from Texas A&M in 1980 with a degree in economics and finance. He is a self-taught chef who now owns six restaurants in the Houston area. His first was Churrascos, opened in 1988. The restaurant has won many honors, such as being ranked fifth in Top 20 Zagat Survey of Best Restaurants. He opened his richly decorated Americas restaurant in 1993, and promptly won Zagat's award for "best newcomer." Our work done, we packed up and left Houston for the journey home. We arrived back in Newark early enough in the morning to literally hop over to Manhattan on a new Sikorsky S76 helicopter service which Continental has introduced in First/Business to save businessmen and others precious time. Flight time is eight minutes to either of the two landing pads at 6 East River Piers, near Wall St., and 499 East 34th St. in downtown Manhattan. One of my colleagues told me that the first time he had flown first class, he told his seat mate, a somewhat jaded and cynical veteran of airline press trips, that he was going to take a walk around the plane, including the economy section. His seat mate looked at him and said that he never ventured into cattle class on these trips. I chuckled for a moment at the story, thought it over for a minute, and replied, "Mooo."