Cuisine at Altitude
Airlines invest in culinary delights to make inflight experiences soar
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.