Fresh take on in-flight fare
Celebrity chef Neil Perry is setting standards sky high as he works to change the way airline food is viewed, writes Grant Jones
IT WAS meal time during a trip on a small airline.
‘‘ Would you like dinner?’’ the flight attendant asked one man.
‘‘ What are my choices?’’ he asked. ‘‘ Yes or no,’’ she replied. It’s that dreaded trip to the international airport, knowing there’s a long-haul flight in front of you, a plastic container on the tray table your only sustenance.
For 16 years, Neil Perry has been trying to change the view that food served by airlines, Qantas in particular, comes covered in foil and is barely edible.
Perry’s interest in Qantas food options starts on the ground at kitchen level and he is just as concerned about what is served at lounge level as he is at the front and back of the plane. First-class passengers, in particular, expect first-class food for their not inconsiderable outlay.
Expectations are also much higher now as foreign governments plough vast amounts of money into stateowned airlines – Emirates and Singapore among them – hoping to garner global attention and secure a big wedge of the highend tourist dollar, Perry says. The quality of the food is an increasingly important aspect of that prestige.
‘‘ People who travel in premium classes, generally they travel well. They stay in good hotels, they eat in terrific restaurants around the world,’’ he says in the Qantas First Class Lounge in Sydney.
‘‘ They kind of understand what’s going on in a food sense. They appreciate good wine, they like great coffee, they’re really savvy.’’
In the 16 hours it takes to fly to Singapore and back, Escape joined Perry to see how he achieves restaurant-quality food in the sky.
‘‘ They want to eat lovely fresh ingredients,’’ he says of first-class passengers. ‘‘ They want to enjoy food that is contemporary. They want to have an experience in the air that relates to a high-street restaurant experience.’’
But how can you achieve that at 10,000m?
‘‘ Food that tastes great on the ground still really tastes great in the air so it was really that philosophy that we were working with,’’ he says.
Perry’s menu on the A380 is the real deal. It offers not only light meals, salads, sides and main courses but also fine wines, petits fours and decent coffee to follow. And each and every one of the dishes must be available to all 14 passengers. It’s not as if you can run out of something or try explaining to a first-class passenger that it’s no longer on the menu.
‘‘ I do think it’s definitely a flight with a Neil Perry meal,’’ quips the chef. ‘‘ We have to remember why we are getting on the plane – that’s to get from point A to point B.’’
On the flight, after dinner orders are taken, Perry observes as cabin attendant Vivian Chow works in the tiny galley kitchen, piecing together elements of a salad from several containers, making a fresh simple vinaigrette then putting the timer on the specially designed oven for the pan-fried salmon, roast Chinese duck, rack of lamb or beef short ribs. Cooking at this height and in these conditions needs to be exact.
‘‘ It’s hard to do really high food because you have set parameters in height that you can stack in trays and things, but the reality is there aren’t a lot of things you can’t do. Yeah, sure, they might freak out if you start flambeing something, certainly souffles and things like that. But we actually cook in the air, that’s why we’ve been able to provide fresh food, and that’s the difference between us and a lot of other carriers.
‘‘ The other great thing is because we work so closely over time with crew, from galley management right through to training in the galley in cooking, we’ve been able to, I think, get the best out of them.
‘‘ You have to get the best out of your chefs, you have to work closely with your suppliers and you have to work closely with your front-of-house staff to deliver a great amount of hospitality and generosity and wonderful service.’’
Perry says that sort of ‘‘ buyin’’ from the cabin crew makes all the difference. ‘‘ They really love the fact that they have this great opportunity to have wonderful fresh food, cook it nicely, present it beautifully and have people appreciate it,’’ he says.
Perry dedicates several hours a week to the Qantas project, on top of his other commitments.
‘‘ I have 520 staff now directly employed by the Rockpool group in seven restaurants but I really feel part of the Qantas family so I feel like we have 4000 international and domestic flight attendants who work with us as well,’’ he says. The pressure is on to deliver. ‘‘ We wouldn’t have it any other way. We thrive in that scenario. One of the fantastic things, the really brilliant things, is that the longevity of the 16 years has built that trust with crew, has built their involvement, their job satisfaction and their focus on making sure that it’s about the customer,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t think Australians really sometimes recognise how proud they should be of this airline and how it’s been run and how innovative it is, given that it’s a company working in a very competitive environment against people who don’t have the same competitive issues.
‘‘ To see an Australian company involved in an industry that is about distances, to be in a country that is the last place that you stop on Earth, basically, and to think that we are up there battling it out to be one of the best airlines in the world is something to be very proud of.’’