Cui­sine at Al­ti­tude

Airlines in­vest in culi­nary de­lights to make in­flight ex­pe­ri­ences soar

Business Traveler (USA) - - CONTENT - By Dan Booth

As we pulled into the park­ing lot of one of the anony­mous low-slung build­ings that dot the pe­riph­ery of John F. Kennedy In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the first thought that struck me was,“It looks so in­dus­trial.” Af­ter all the pur­pose of to­day’s out­ing was to ex­pe­ri­ence the culi­nary art of cre­at­ing air­line menus. As we donned our dis­pos­able bunny suits – seem­ingly more ap­pro­pri­ate for a high-tech clean­room – my pre­con­ceived im­ages of a quaint bistro kitchen with lit­tle pots bub­bling hap­pily on the range were soon re­placed by the re­al­ity of a ma­jor food ser­vice op­er­a­tion. There’s more to de­vel­op­ing an air­line menu than meets the eye – or the taste buds.

I had been in­vited to NewYork for a rare treat – a be­hind the scenes look at how a ma­jor air­line makes de­ci­sions about its on­board cui­sine. Sin­ga­pore Airlines’team of culi­nary and op­er­a­tions spe­cial­ists had gath­ered at NewYork’s JFK to eval­u­ate, taste and cri­tique new menu choices for the air­line’s flights out of NewYork for the up­com­ing quar­ter. It’s a process they do at ev­ery SQ sta­tion around the world, for ev­ery menu.

We passed through a series of vast rooms where dishes were be­ing pre­pared and loaded into the fa­mil­iar air­plane cater­ing carts, hence the need for the clean suits. Even­tu­ally we were ush­ered into a small con­fer­ence room where we found – no food. At least no plat­ters spread with sam­ple-size bits and bites.

In­stead, af­ter shed­ding the clean suits (thank­fully!), we were handed copies of all the meal op­tions that were un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. Block-by-block, the spread­sheets noted flight num­bers, class of ser­vice, which meal ser­vice (break­fast, lunch, din­ner), pro­tein choices, veg­gies and desserts, along with ini­tials in­di­cat­ing who among Sin­ga­pore Air’s star chefs had cre­ated the recipe, plus ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion.

And that’s just for the air­line’s ser­vice out of NewYork.

The menu eval­u­a­tion is a two-day process, over­seen by Paolo Zam­brano, Sin­ga­pore Air’s man­ager of in­flight ser­vices for food and bev­er­age. On this day, we were joined by Leanne Koh, JFK sta­tion man­ager and S.Y. Chen, vice pres­i­dent, eastern US. Around the con­fer­ence ta­ble, the menu spread­sheets were pored over in de­tail, with ques­tions about the food’s sources, its prepa­ra­tion both pre-flight and in-flight, how it would be de­liv­ered and how it was to be served.

When ev­ery­one was sat­is­fied the de­tails were in or­der, we moved on to the ad­join­ing room. Here on three long ta­bles each meal se­lec­tion in all classes was set out not once, but twice; each op­tion was plated as it would ap­pear to the cus­tomer, and above that, the meal was laid out the way the cabin at­ten­dants would see it when comes out of the caterer’s carts.

Thus a com­pact alu­minum tray packed with con­tain­ers of brown liq­uid, a few green and red side items and a slice of cooked chicken meat is trans­formed into a col­or­ful pre­sen­ta­tion of braised spring chicken with black mush­rooms in soya sauce, sea­sonal veg­eta­bles and steamed rice. Down the ta­ble, we got to see ev­ery menu se­lec­tion in all classes, both as it looks when it comes into the gal­ley and again as it comes to the pas­sen­ger’s tray ta­ble.

As each meal was re­viewed for pre­sen­ta­tion, sourc­ing, op­er­a­tional is­sues and, of course, taste, I be­gan to see what fac­tors re­ally mat­ter in this most de­mand­ing of culi­nary en­vi­ron­ments. In ad­di­tion to typ­i­cal restau­rant is­sues such as por­tion size and food sourc­ing, airlines have to think about things that only mat­ter at 35,000 feet. Most im­por­tant, how do you keep food tast­ing fresh when it needs to be pre­pared some­times hours in ad­vance? Be­gin with high qual­ity prod­ucts, I’m told, then fig­ure out ways to pre­pare them so they can be served at the right de­gree of done­ness.

Then there’s the need to coun­ter­act the per­ceived changes in the taste and qual­ity of the food caused by high al­ti­tude and low hu­mid­ity.

Choos­ing the right cuts of meat and fish is a start, then adding sauces or liq­uids helps bal­ance the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of flight on the senses. An­other key: Choos­ing recipes with more sub­stan­tial fla­vors, as taste buds tend to be­come less sen­si­tive in this en­vi­ron­ment.

Get­ting your meal to the plane is only half the jour­ney. The last 10 feet – from the gal­ley to your tray ta­ble – is an­other chal­lenge al­to­gether. As any foodie will tell you, the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins with the eyes. So what your plate looks like when it ar­rives is an­other crit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion for the team. How quickly and ef­fi­ciently can flight at­ten­dants plate up de­li­cious look­ing fare in that tiny space?

To help, af­ter each menu item is ap­proved, the finished prod­uct is pho­tographed and a pic­ture is in­cluded with the meal, to an­swer all-im­por­tant ques­tions like, does the sprig of pars­ley go be­side the steak or on top of the potato?

Fi­nally, an air­line has to take into ac­count fac­tors that no ground­bound restau­rant would ever con­sider – such as how much the plates and sil­ver­ware and other ser­vice items weigh, should the wine be served in glass or plas­tic, how few cook­ing ap­pli­ances are absolutely nec­es­sary in the gal­ley. Af­ter all, it costs the air­line plenty of money to fly things around, no mat­ter if it’s a paying pas­sen­ger or a fork. Ev­ery ounce counts.

One other thing: For­get the quaint bistro kitchen. The air­line in­dus­try de­mands mas­sive food ser­vice and lo­gis­tics op­er­a­tions that cre­ate and de­liver hun­dreds of thou­sands of meals ev­ery day. The tast­ing we ex­pe­ri­enced at the Sin­ga­pore Airlines NewYork sta­tion is re­peated across the air­line’s net­work, and is mir­rored in other airlines as well.

The Celebrity Name Game

Given the size and com­plex­ity of the job, it’s a marvel that any air­line food rises above the level of high school cafe­te­ria.Yes, I un­der­stand that some fliers may ques­tion whether it has. But the fact is that airlines in gen­eral have come to re­gard their menus – par­tic­u­larly in the premium cab­ins – as a point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.

In search of the per­fect culi­nary brag­ging rights, airlines have en­listed the help of top chefs from across their net­works. The idea is to trans­late those won­der­ful, del­i­cate one-of-a-kind restau­rant dishes into some­thing that can be pro­duced in its thou­sands and stand up to the rig­ors of fly­ing – and still cap­ture the essence of the culi­nary con­cept.

For ex­am­ple, Sin­ga­pore Airlines has put to­gether a cast of eight cel­e­brated chefs they call the In­ter­na­tional Culi­nary Panel. This award-win­ning en­sem­ble in­clude NewYork City’s Al­fred Por­tale, a pi­o­neer of New Amer­i­can cui­sine; Suzanne Goin, the chef and restau­ra­teur of three top LA restau­rants; Carlo Cracco, who helms Mi­lan’s two Miche­lin­starred restau­rant, Ris­torante Cracco; Grand Mas­ter of French cui­sine, Ge­orges Blanc; Aus­tralian culi­nary star Matthew Moran;Yoshi­hiro Mu­rata, whose restau­rants have been awarded seven Miche­lin stars, more than any other in Ja­pan; San­jeev Kapoor, star of Asia’s long­est run­ning cook­ing show; and Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Zhu Jun of Shang­hai’s renowned Jade Gar­den Restau­rant.

For menus and de­tails visit sin­ga­pore­air.com.

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