Illustration by Nicole Moore.

At Oscar Diaz’s new Durham restaurant, Little Bull, the high-ceilinged dining room has something of a Dark Academia vibe, with ornate wallpaper, velvet bar stools, burnished chandeliers, and emerald banker’s lamps, but the space is drenched in natural light and the door to the patio is propped open, ushering in floral spring winds.

Such an atmosphere could not be accomplished in an airport terminal. Yet in April, Diaz announced that’s where he’s headed next, with Adios! scheduled to open in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) by the end of 2024.

For a chef who views his restaurants as blank slates for self-expression, it’s bound to be a challenge—even if the owner of Jose and Sons and Cortez Seafood, both in Raleigh, worked at an O’Hare International Airport restaurant in college.

As Diaz knows, airport restaurants come with rigid confines. Dishes must be produced at breakneck speed. Kitchens are tiny and bound in red tape: butcher knives, for instance, must be tethered to work stations, per TSA guidelines. Customer traffic is almost always high; staffing is almost always low. Hours of operation are set in stone. Airport executives have the final say on menu items, aesthetics, and prices.

And in most cases, independent chefs don’t actually own or operate the airport restaurants that bear their names. They help craft the concepts, but concessionaires—branches of food service and hospitality companies, typically—are the ones who execute them.

Historically, it’s been rare for airport concessionaires to solicit local chefs, but in recent years, airports have begun making a concerted effort to prioritize local purveyors over corporate ones.

At RDU, Raleigh’s Black & White Coffee Roasters recently replaced a Starbucks, and at least 10 more local food and drink spots are in the works, including a second location of Durham’s Beyú Caffé and a new concept from Raleigh chef and restaurateur Scott Crawford. Since 2020, Cary’s La Farm Bakery has had an outpost at RDU as well.

The draw of the airport, of course, is exposure. When Adios! opens next year, it’s possible that as many people will eat there each day as at Diaz’s other three restaurants combined. But for Diaz, a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist known for his intentional, hands-on approach to upscale dining, should the restaurant that most shapes the traveling public’s perception of his brand be one that he doesn’t operate? Should it be one with a compact menu, sterile airport surroundings, and a perpetually grouchy customer base? 

“I feel like I have to keep revving my engine. With the airport, obviously, I don’t want to dilute my brand. But that’s the challenge I needed: How do I make this work within these parameters?”

Diaz was approached about developing an RDU concept in 2019. For a while afterward, he thought the offer might have been some bizarre hoax: the concessionaire, a Miami-based hospitality executive named Francesco Balli, had shown up unannounced at Cortez and pitched the sort of opportunity that, in Diaz’s mind, only ever happened to celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless. They had a nice chat, and then years passed with no word from Balli.

The pandemic was behind the silence, but Diaz didn’t know that for sure at the time. He started wondering if Balli was legit. Then he started wondering if he cared. He had some apprehensions about going fast-casual.

“I know what art I want to present,” he says. “I know what hip-hop I want to make. I’m not making bangers for the club all the time, but I want quality to be associated with my name.”

In 2022, though, when Diaz finally got a text from Balli, he decided to go for it. He’d been experiencing a creeping sense of ennui. 

“For the first time in a long time, I was feeling comfortable,” Diaz says. “I don’t know if I just don’t know how to accept comfort in my life, or if comfort is a sign of complacency, but I feel like I have to keep revving my engine. With the airport, obviously, I don’t want to dilute my brand. But that’s the challenge I needed: How do I make this work within these parameters?”

Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY), in New Orleans, is a few years ahead of RDU.

Groundwork for MSY’s shift to predominantly local dining concepts began in 2015, right after officials approved plans to build a new main terminal building. That year, three competing concessionaires approached Michael Gulotta, a New Orleans chef who had opened his first restaurant, a Vietnamese Creole joint called MoPho, 12 months prior. They wanted him to open a second MoPho location at MSY.

“These people started showing up and were like, ‘Hey, we’re bidding to get a space at the airport, we want you on our bid,’” Gulotta says. “I was like, ‘OK, I don’t know what that means.’”

They gave him the rundown and told him he was the “hot new thing.” He went with Delaware North, a concessionaire who also had the acclaimed chef John Folse on its bid.

It was a “gut call,” Gulotta says, and a good one: if it weren’t for Folse, who owns a massive food manufacturing plant near New Orleans, Gulotta would not have been able to adapt MoPho’s menu for the airport. The sauces that anchor many of MoPho’s dishes—vindaloo curry, spicy mayonnaise, and nuoc mam caramel, among others—couldn’t be produced in a “little airport kitchen,” he says, but Folse allowed him to use his plant.

“​​The caramel is a really big pain in the ass. It’s very technical,” Gulotta says. “They figured out how to do it in these giant machines at the plant. It was a year of me driving to Gonzales, Louisiana, and tinkering with their staff to get all the sauces right, and the broths.”

MoPho’s MSY location launched when the new terminal did, in November 2019.

“As soon as we opened it, the fucking world ended,” Gulotta says.

If Gulotta sounds gruff, it’s partially because—as he told me repeatedly—I was asking him questions that he couldn’t answer.

He doesn’t know how to gauge the success of MoPho’s airport location, financially or critically, because its launch coincided with the onset of the pandemic, he says. And he doesn’t have thoughts on the ways in which customers make food and drink selections differently at the airport—other than something a colleague told him, once, about Michelob Ultra being the top seller at every American airport—because he doesn’t spend any time at MSY. “When I actually sit down and think about the fact that probably 250 people eat there a day, I might have a small panic attack,” Gulotta says. “But what can I really do about it? I’ve tried to be involved, and it’s just not a system that I can thrive in.”

The main issue, he says, is staffing. Airport concession jobs have always been tricky to fill, as hirers and applicants are required to jump through a number of security and union-related hoops. Pandemic-era staff shortages haven’t helped. 

Gulotta used to train MSY’s MoPho employees once a month, but as the pandemic worsened, it gave him too much anxiety to see how few workers the restaurant was able to recruit and retain, he says, and training didn’t feel productive. Gulotta doesn’t control staffing—Delaware North and MSY do—so he’s able to put it out of his mind, for better or for worse.

“Eventually I was just like, I don’t have time to go and fight bureaucracy to make sure that my restaurant is running well,” he says.

If MSY’s numbers are any indication, revenue-wise, at least, things seem to be going OK. In 2022, the airport’s $50 million in restaurant-and-bar gross sales “surpassed 2019 gross sales even though passenger activity at MSY has yet to reach pre-pandemic totals,” according to a spokesperson.

Gulotta says relinquishing operational control to Delaware North has allowed him to focus on other things. He’s planning to open a third restaurant, Tana, later this year.

But has the airport diluted his brand? 

Gulotta doesn’t think so. The MSY location is what made people start seeing MoPho as a brand, he says. It’s shown prospective partners and investors that he’s versatile. 

And it’s given him a good design template. When Delaware North was adapting the flagship MoPho, which has a wood-paneled tavern feel, for the airport, it bumped up the brightness of the restaurant’s orange-and-blue color scheme and took a minimalist approach toward structural and seating components—which, according to Gulotta, makes the space feel airy even in a claustrophobic airport terminal. If he ends up opening more MoPhos, they’ll look like that, he says.

Oh, and the sauces that Folse’s plant produces for the airport MoPho—Gulotta uses those at the flagship location, too, which has helped to streamline kitchen operations.

“Really,” Gulotta says, “it kind of revolutionized MoPho.”

Oscar Diaz. Credit: Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

When Diaz worked at O’Hare in Chicago, parking and going through security every day was a hassle, as was staffing, he says, so he’s happy to stay out of the day-to-day operations at RDU. He trusts Balli’s company to execute his vision for Adios!, which is rooted in the idea that a vacation should start at the airport.

“When I was a kid and I would travel with my parents to Mexico, it was a big deal—people were wearing suits,” Diaz says. “Now, people are in sweats, you have to take your shoes off; it’s more about comfort. The general energy has changed. I had that in mind for the restaurant—that it should be an easygoing, fun spot.”

“It’s a captive audience,” Diaz says of fliers. “Actually, that might be the wrong word; it’s more like a hostage situation. Most people are stressed and they don’t have a real ‘choice choice’ for where to eat, right? So we want to make it as relaxing for them as we can.”

In terms of cuisine, Diaz says the dishes at Adios! will be biographical and boundary-blurring, as per usual. His current menu draft includes chilaquiles served in Chinese takeout boxes with chopsticks; chicken wings with a dip that falls somewhere between Southern white sauce and Mexican crema; and jibaritos, fried plantain sandwiches that originated at a Puerto Rican restaurant in Chicago in the ’90s, when Diaz was a teen.

The challenge Diaz desired has come in the form of food cost caps. It’s been tricky to design dishes with a budget that’s out of his control, he says.

“The mechanics in my brain keep telling me to put swordfish and tuna on the menu. There’s always a temptation as a chef—you forget, right? Maybe as an artist, you forget. Maybe as a constructor or as an architect. We love this stuff. We want it to be quality. And it can be quality—that’s where creativity comes in. But it’s also business, so at some point, the bottom line is a thing. That’s kind of the ruthlessness of making money off an art.”

Once Diaz finalizes the menu, checks a few other boxes, and helps with the launch next year, he will exit the cockpit, so to speak.

When Adios! opens, Diaz will be the one saying goodbye to something.

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to

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