When you’re a 37-year-old L.A. native who has been working in the hospitality industry since high school, your résumé may look a little something like Chris Hsieh’s. He’s the new executive chef for American Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport, and he’s serving Nutella Monte Cristo sandwiches, avocado Caprese salads and “health nut” spinach salads to travelers in the American Airlines Admirals Club and Flagship Lounge. Just think of him as the guy who feeds you while you sip Champagne and wait to board your summer flight to somewhere tropical. But before serving about 1,500 guests a day at the airport, Hsieh’s career went a little something like this: Take odd jobs catering in high school. Do everything from being a busboy to back server to line cook to chef de cuisine at some of the trendiest, most well-regarded restaurants in the city, including Comme Ça. Get on Bravo’s “Best New Restaurant” show. Spend some time cooking on an all-meatball food truck (Great Balls on Tires). Then run your own airport kitchen. Here’s how he made it all happen.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be J.D. Salinger. But my grammar was very poor and my writing ability was not up to par, so I quickly found my creative outlet to be cooking. I would watch PBS and Martin Yan and Julia Child and the “Galloping Gourmet” and just be, like, “Yeah, I can cook too.”
Why become a chef for American Airlines?
I want to be part of the changing food scene for airlines. Because people come to the airport and think, “Eh.” You know what? We’re offering great, healthful options. The biggest opportunity for me is making people reevaluate what they think of when they are coming to the airport and have it be something they can look forward to instead of dread.
What does your typical day look like?
We’re operational 21 hours of the day, so I always try to come in a bit early and check in with my morning crew. I get out on the floor and kind of engage guests and clear tables as much as I can. I’m picking up plates, looking to see if people are leaving things on the plates or really liked something. Then I can take that information back to corporate to say we need more of this, or this is doing really well.
What’s your idea of comfort food?
It’s something that just sticks to your gut. I’m half Asian, so it would be pot stickers or stir fry. Something that just brings you back to childhood.
If you could eat dinner with anyone, who would it be and what would you eat?
[Auguste] Escoffier. And I’d say, “Make me something. Whatever you want.” I would want to see where cuisine came from. What we consider modern cuisine, definitely he’s the father of it. I’d say, “Can you name a dish after me, like peach Melba?”