WHEN flying economy, travelers are usually stuck with cliched chicken rice or beef noodle, either unpalatable or stodgy. But the dining scene on planes is now changing.
In-flight meals that make guests frown are understandable, to a point. “They cannot be freshly made but cooked one day in advance. Furthermore, it’s nearly impossible for food reaching its peak after it’s exposed under a cold-chain temperature,” says Rocky Xu, general manager of Gate Gourmet Shanghai, one of the only two airline catering providers in the city.
Gate Gourmet’s clients are mainly international airlines including Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Qatar and Swiss.
“All the foods after being cooked by our chefs are moved to the chiller (5 degrees Celsius) for preservation,” says Xu in the central kitchen of his company close to Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
The chilling and reheating process doesn’t include bakery and pastry items, so bread, biscuits and cakes are among the few foods that keep the same quality as those on the ground.
Another problem is that chefs working for airlines face various restraints on ingredient sourcing.
“When designing the menu, hygiene and safety are the first consideration before flavor, so our chefs try to avoid anything ‘dangerous’,” says Xu, who has worked as a chef at several Shanghai 5-star hotels and at a fine-dining restaurant in Australia.
“Dangerous” foods include some that people are commonly allergic to, such as peanuts and mangoes, as well as easy targets for bacteria such as beans and some seafoods.
Food with bones such as pork rib and chicken feet, together with stone fruits such as peaches, apricots and olives, are excluded to avoid choking — a real hazard when the plane hits turbulence.
Some vegetables easily lose their color and flavor after being reheated, and become soft, dry and plain. They, too, are excluded from the skies.
Most airline-friendly vegetables have a crunchy texture and bright color, such as carrots, radishes, cauliflower and asparagus, according to Xu.
Air dining varies significantly depending on travelers’ selection of class and airline.
In the central kitchen of Gate Gourmet Shanghai, foods for economy and business classes (including first class) are prepared separately in two rooms.
Foods in the “economy room” are cooked together in a large pot and then plated in small portions, while in the “business room” chefs cook each dish independently to ensure the fine flavor.
For first-class dining, all the ingredients are fresh, while for economy a small portion of frozen products are allowed.
Different airlines have their own strategies, from the cost of dining to a focus on particular food or drink. Many airlines are trying to reduce their food costs to survive in the increasingly competitive aviation industry. Most companies decline to reveal their food budget.
According to research by Travel + Leisure magazine, Singapore Airlines annually budgets US$500 million for food, US$15 million for beverages and US$16.5 million for wine.
Other tidbits: Air France is the only airline that provides free Champagne for economy-class passengers. Xu says Swissair is the only one asking for use of imported beef.
Designing recipes used in the sky is a challenging profession, requiring both a solid culinary base and a scientific awareness of how the body functions in high altitude. Most chefs at Gate Gourmet formerly used to work for Shanghai 5-star hotels.
Some airlines design the recipes on their own, finalized by a professional caterer. Some trust the matter directly to the provider.
“People’s palate turns insensitive in the sky, so some rich and spicy foods are more suitable and popular such as curry, yu xiang rousi (fish-flavored pork slices) and kung pao chicken. That’s why there’s always a piece of pickle in your food box to pair with the rice or noodle,” says Xu.
According to Liu Junqing, a certified senior nutritionist and founder of YOUFUUD health management center in Shanghai, a person’s palate is three times heavier in the sky. That may explain why some airlines based in East Asia and the Middle East, where spicy foods are prevalent, repeatedly are awarded with best-dining awards.
“We can make the food comparatively richer but not too rich since reheating on the plane will inevitably evaporate some water in the food to make it taste saltier and destroy its texture,” says Xu.
Xu’s team writes a detailed step-by-step guideline for air crews. For example, the filet steak seared and chilled by the chef on the ground will reach its best if the air crew reheats it on the grill for 15 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, not all airline crews rigorously follow the guide, so the beef can quickly turn into leather.
A few airlines including Turkish Airlines and Etihad Airways take it a step further and bring chefs on board to cook in flight. But that benefits only business and first-class passengers.
“A chef on board will be an inexorable trend,” Xu predicts.
“No matter how hard airlines try, the reputation of food on board planes is not very high,” says Peter Jones, former chair of the International Travel Catering Association.
But airlines never stop making new attempts. Inviting celebrity chefs to design the menu is a recent trend. Starting this month, Lufthansa’s first- and business-class passengers on flights to six Chinese gateway cities can taste food designed by Gao Xiaosheng, executive Chinese chef at Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai. Travelers can taste his signature dish — braised beef in sweet and sour sauce with fried rice with egg.
“I put more focus on standardizing the sauce recipe to make the food, although produced in large amounts, consistent and qualified,” says Gao.
Swissair cooperates with Florian Trento, Peninsula Hotel’s group executive chef, to launch the Peninsula menu on flights from Hong Kong, Bangkok, Shanghai and Beijing to Zurich.
Qatar Airways works with certain key chefs to design its “Culinary World Menu.” These include Nobu Matsuhisa, celebrity restaurateur known for his fusion culinary style that blends traditional Japanese with South American ingredients, and Vineet Bhatia, the first Michelin-awarded Indian chef.
Virgin Atlantic recently announced a plan to provide its economy passengers a restaurant-like dining experience. They will start with a welcome cocktail, followed by a menu with a selection of main courses, and end with dessert and hot drink service.
“The most important element of the new service is passengers will now have more time to relax at their seat and enjoy the full in-flight entertainment experience,” says Steve Griffiths, chief operating officer of Virgin Atlantic.