The food chain

26 Feb 2009 by Sara Turner

The journey taken by your premium airline meal before it reaches your seat is a complicated business. Sara Turner dons a hairnet to investigate.

Mile-high fine-dining is on the rise, with airlines embracing the opportunity to wine and dine travellers in a bid to beat the competition and earn a loyal customer. For premium passengers, this means lobster thermidor and caviar, but the standards of in-flight cuisine isn’t just about the menu, it’s also about getting the right food to the right plane at exactly the right time.

To see where it all happens, I donned safety boots and a hairnet to visit the flight kitchens at Gate Gourmet Heathrow West, from where 20 million meals are created every year. The facility produces 55,000 meals a day for premium class passengers (economy class meals are prepared elsewhere), serving 260 flights a day. The dishes are planned, cooked and transported to the plane by Gate Gourmet staff, a vast chain of people including drivers, chefs and dish washers.

Stephen Corr, Gate Gourmet’s chief operating officer for UK and Ireland, says: “There is not much point in having culinary excellence if we don’t have operating excellence. Every aircraft, every day, must receive the same quality food. Out on the airfield it’s volatile, and we have to be able to respond. We can top up an aircraft 12 minutes before it departs.”

The whole operation has to be more scientific than in a standard kitchen. Staff at Gate Gourmet will regularly weigh ingredients as well as the finished product to ensure it meets strict guidelines. They also have a picture of what the meal should look like, which employees will copy right down to the last carrot and pea.

I enter the main production area through two huge doors. To one side are a number of sinks with heavy-duty soap dispensers. I wash my hands, adjust my hairnet and carry on through. The facility is huge. A series of long stainless-steel tables stretch along the spotless tiled floor, forming a production line. On the nearest table, staff are preparing a starter of prosciutto with melon.

I walk into the hot kitchens, where a beef stew is bubbling. All the meat sourced by Gate Gourmet is halal, to avoid contamination (except for pork, of course). Once prepared and loaded on to a trolley, the food is kept in a refrigerated room until it leaves for the plane. Another room is dedicated to crockery, cutlery, napkins and any other piece of equipment needed on board. Gate Gourmet is also responsible for washing all of these items after a flight.

Next is the loading bay, where the trolleys are lined up to be taken to the plane – each is clearly labelled with what it contains. With the arrival of Emirates’ A380 aircraft in December, Gate Gourmet had to allow for a 40 per cent increase in capacity from the old B777 aircraft previously used on the Heathrow-Dubai route. The smaller aircraft required between one and two bays, while the superjumbo needs at least three.

Gate Gourmet also works with airlines to create new menus, within budget, often alongside top chefs or based on regional cuisine. American Airlines is working with Darren McGrady, the Savoy-trained chef who cooked for the Queen for 11 years and was personal chef to Diana, Princess of Wales, for four years. Since November, Darren’s recipes for British classics such as cottage pie have been available to westbound premium class passengers travelling from Europe to the US.

Swiss International Air Lines also employs top-class chefs to work with Gate Gourmet, with the added twist of a strictly Swiss menu. Since the carrier merged with Lufthansa in 2005, Swiss has maintained an independent identity, and this is reflected in its Taste of Switzerland menu. (If Swiss specialities aren’t for you, there is also a choice of 19 special menus, including low calorie, kosher, low-cholesterol and vegetarian lacto-ovo.)

First introduced in 2002 and relaunched in 2006, the concept has proved so popular that it was expanded on to new routes to Asia and North America last September. Every three months, a different top chef from a different region in Switzerland draws on local culinary traditions to create a new, authentically Swiss menu, which is then produced by Gate Gourmet and served to business and first class passengers travelling long-haul.

The winter 2008 menu was the work of Michelin-starred Heiko Neider, head chef of fine-dining at the Restaurant in the Dolder Grand, a five-star luxury hotel in Zurich. Moving from a kitchen to a plane is far from simple, according to Neider. “Translating from fine-dining to mass production is a demanding task,” he says.” With the menu at the restaurant as inspiration, I had so many ideas of what we could serve on board. I wanted to put our restaurant on the plane. Then I saw the rules – there were around 50 I had to follow. Cooking for a flight is not the same as cooking in the kitchen at the restaurant. I had to think very carefully about each dish.”

Difficulties with ingredients and processes mean some things simply don’t work on a plane. Fried onions and raw fish are both no-nos, for example. According to Neider, the texture of food is as important as the taste but as meals often need to be reheated, certain textures, such as crunchy toppings, are hard to achieve.

The dishes also had to be authentic, and with an average of 40 per cent Swiss nationals on each flight, they would be put to the test. “True Swiss Gruyère is smellier than some people might like,” he says, “but that is how it should be served.”

The onboard offering is based on what guests can expect at Neider’s restaurant – so first class passengers might have scallops with cauliflower, ginger and star anise, while business class passengers tuck into veal steak with carrots, black cumin and polenta cubes, followed by Sprungli chocolates handmade in Zurich. “Now I think the product is very good,” he says.

The current Taste of Switzerland spring menu has been designed by chef Urs Gschwend from restaurant Albergo Giardino in the Swiss canton of Ascona, while the summer one is scheduled to be created by Daniel Jann of the Landgasthof Adler in Ried-Muotathal to reflect food from the Swiss region of Schwyz.

According to Tejinder Singh, Jet Airways’ general manager of catering for Europe, the UK and the US, and general manager of customer services in Brussels, says authenticity is essential to the world of plane food. Since Jet started flights out of London Heathrow in 2005, all the Indian food it serves on board has been prepared by Bombay Brasserie. Owned by the Taj Group, the Kensington-based restaurant also runs a flight kitchen near London Heathrow.

Singh says: “For Jet Airways, Indian food is very important and Bombay Brasserie is a natural partner – the chefs are creative and authentic. They understand the travellers and know what kind of food they like. We serve only fresh food – nothing is frozen.”

For Singh, finding experienced chefs is vital. “If the chef is not skilled, your quality will vary, especially as the equipment used to make Indian food is not standardised. Bombay Brasserie has a good set of chefs who are used to high-end catering. They come with their own set of ideas and they know the limitations of Indian food very well, and with the creative mindset that they have, we can do a lot of dishes,” he says.

As well as its strong partnership with Bombay Brasserie, Jet Airways recently asked Michelin-starred chef Yves Mattagne, who worked with LSG Sky Chefs (one of Gate Gourmet’s competitors) and Jet Airways, to create a Western-style menu.

Singh says: “Indian food is expected of us. It’s completely unacceptable if we can’t do good Indian cuisine, but our emphasis is equally on Western food. We want to be known as an international carrier that serves great international food.”

Mattagne also found converting restaurant food to plane food far from simple, as Singh explains: “We had to work a lot with Yves, giving him experience on board, making him familiar with the equipment and the constraints of a flight kitchen. The challenge was to encourage him to maintain his skill-set, because you don’t want a chef who’s been made so uptight by all the requirements that he loses his own creativity. He had to retain his style, which is clean, fresh and minimalistic.”

The way in which food is served is also changing for premium class passengers. Many airlines now offer restaurant-style dining, allowing passengers to choose when and what they want to eat. While some passengers prefer a quick bite before going to sleep, others enjoy eating four courses served individually by cabin crew.

Singapore Airlines offers a “book the cook” service, where passengers can choose what they want to eat from an extensive menu. It is adapted for the point of departure and served restaurant-style, with roast guinea fowl available on routes from London, Gulf-style lamb shanks from Dubai and unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) from Tokyo. Swiss also introduced restaurant-style dining last summer for premium class long-haul passengers.

So what are travellers likely to see on their plates in the future? The idea of provenance – knowing where our food has come from and the methods used to produce it – is gaining momentum, alongside culinary tourism. Lifestyle trends are also on the rise, with energy boosters and “super foods” on offer that claim to reduce jet lag and improve productivity.

Also high on the agenda in these cost-conscious, green-friendly times are global food miles and carbon footprints. You may like your steak served on a porcelain plate, but the added weight isn’t good for slimming down fuel costs. New materials may be the answer, with lightweight and biodegradable options such as bamboo and wood pulp under development. Some passengers are opting to forgo plane food altogether, instead grazing airport lounges for sustenance.

With constantly evolving trends and airline customers demanding innovative products, the pressure is on. Sarah Klatt-Walsh, head of in-flight at Swiss, says: “Business and first class services are changing faster and faster – business class is moving closer to what we used to know as first class. Hospitality is so important. We need to bear in mind that our customers are also our competitors’ customers, and that the competition is continually raising the premium bar.”

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