A “New Relationship with Food”: How workers prepared to make your trip through LAX Airport a bit tastier

We’ve all been there. You’ve made it through security, you’re rushing to your gate where your flight is already boarding, and your stomach is grumbling almost as loudly as the plane’s engines. You need something to eat, and quick. But in a sea of fast food and shrink-wrapped snacks, what’s a real food lover to do?

LAX Culinary Training Program

Well, before long, travelers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) won’t face this frustrating predicament any longer.  As part of a major $4.11 billion renovation, the airport is moving beyond the traditional fast food options, adding local gourmet restaurants serving fresh, sustainable food to the terminals.  LA foodie favorites like Larder at Tavern, Cole’s, Ford’s Filling Station, and Campanile will soon open their doors in LAX’s Terminal 4 and Bradley Terminal.  Behind the counters and in the kitchens of these eateries will be food service workers from UNITE HERE Local 11.

The new food program provided an opportunity for the airport’s food workers’ to advance their own kitchen skills, so UNITE HERE helped develop a training program to help them make the transition from burger-flipping to high-end fresh food preparation.  Forty-eight workers enrolled in the first session of the training program earlier this year, attending classes eight hours a day, five days a week, for two months.

LAX Culinary Training Program

After spending years reheating and frying, many workers are now cooking highly complex meals from scratch. Valencia Crain, a training graduate who has worked at various fast food restaurants at LAX for six years, said, “I loved the class.  It helped me in so many ways. Before I couldn’t cook like this…now I can sous-vide pork chops and make hollandaise from scratch. I feel very proud.”

Through the training, workers moved from rudimentary knowledge of basic food handling skills – like assembling burritos from pre-processed ingredients – to high-level training in gourmet cooking.  The training was intensive and thorough, preparing workers to cook high-quality meals in a fast-paced environment.  Crain says, “We had fun with it. We practiced making entrees like we were actually on a line in the kitchen, and we had to get them done by a certain time. And every day we ate what we cooked, so we had to put our best foot forward. That was lunch!”

The skills workers learned in the program are changing not only their experience on the job, but also the way they cook for their families at home.  Crain explains the program’s impact on her family’s eating habits: “The training has totally given me a new relationship with food.  Even little things like how to make your own broth.   There are things I used to buy from a can, that I no longer do because I learned how to make it from scratch in the class.  My son loves my cooking now.”


The program’s first class of 48 students graduated earlier this month. At their graduation, the new chefs were joined by a group of Los Angeles’ leading restaurateurs and celebrity chefs, whose establishments will be among those that open at the terminals later this year.  Mark Peel, owner of Campanile and former fry-cook himself, said that worker training is essential to revamping the food options at LAX.

“I am thrilled that Campanile will be at LAX helping to represent the great quality and diversity that is our town,” said Peel. “I have watched these graduating culinary students in action, and I am very impressed by their enthusiasm and commitment. This program is a model for the way unions and businesses should work together.”

“This program is a model for the way unions and businesses should work together.” – Chef Mark Peel, Campanile

The LAX Culinary Training Program training program was operated with funding through a Los Angeles City Grant for $225,000, by the Hospitality Training Academy, a non-profit labor-management trust, which brought together labor, business, Work Source Center partners, and the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. LA Trade Tech and HMS Host developed the culinary curriculum to meet the needs of the new restaurants. The training took place at the HMS Host’s LAX commissary, and was taught by instructors from LATTC and HTA.

Following on the heels of the new graduates, the next group of training program students began classes last week, preparing to join workers like Crain in leading the sustainability transformation at LAX and beyond.

Interested in food at O’Hare airport as well?  Check out our new report, “Putting Sustainability on the Table: Airport Workers’ Vision for $3 billion of Food and Drink at O’Hare” and take our survey about what YOU would like to see O’Hare’s upcoming food redevelopment!


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