From col­lab­o­rat­ing with chefs to high­light­ing re­gional cuisines, air­lines are up­ping their in-flight culi­nary game

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - IN-FLIGHT DINING - WORDS CRAIG BRIGHT

Iwas eight years old the first time I set foot on an aero­plane. I re­call ea­gerly re­mov­ing the foil of my break­fast meal, only to be greeted by a sad, grey sausage, a thin strip of ba­con and a squishy yel­low cube mas­querad­ing as an omelette. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence was so dis­heart­en­ing that to­day I still find it hard to choose Western meal op­tions… Fast-for­ward more than two decades, and in-flight meals have un­doubt­edly im­proved in ev­ery way. It’s not just taste that has been tack­led, but con­cep­tion, ap­pear­ance, pre­sen­ta­tion and ser­vice.

“Whilst there are many fac­tors that in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers con­sider when se­lect­ing their flights – in­clud­ing sched­ule, price and con­ve­nience – there’s no doubt that the ground and air ex­pe­ri­ence are be­com­ing more im­por­tant dif­fer­en­tia­tors,” says Chris Birt, gen­eral man­ager of ser­vice de­liv­ery for Hong Kong Air­lines. “Cus­tomer feed­back tells us that the qual­ity of meals is a very im­por­tant part of the over­all on­board ex­pe­ri­ence, and this is es­pe­cially the case on longer flights.”

So, how are air­lines up­ping their culi­nary game?


One cur­rent trend we’re see­ing is col­lab­o­ra­tions with independent chefs from renowned restau­rants across the globe. For ex­am­ple, from March 1, Delta rolled out new menus on ser­vices de­part­ing North Asia, devel­oped in con­sul­ta­tion with lo­cal culi­nary part­ners such as Chi­nese chef Jereme Leung, whose menu fea­tured Shaanxi biang biang noo­dles and Shanghai-style steamed sole on f lights de­part­ing Bei­jing and Shanghai. On f lights leav­ing Ja­pan, mean­while, chef No­rio Ueno’s menu fea­tures dishes such as mar­i­nated rock­fish and kuro-bata pork. This sum­mer, pas­sen­gers out of Seoul will also be able to en­joy creations from chef Woo-Joong Kwon, whose Korean restau­rant has earned two Miche­lin stars.

“Din­ing, no mat­ter where you are, should be an ex­pe­ri­ence that is en­joyed and re­mem­bered,” says Al­li­son Aus­band, Delta’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of in-flight ser­vices. “Mak­ing sure the ex­pe­ri­ence is as authen­tic to lo­cal cul­ture as it is de­li­cious is at the core of how we de­velop our in-f light menus, and why we wanted to part­ner with chefs Jereme Leung, No­rio Ueno and Woo-Joong Kwon, who are so well re­spected in their home coun­tries.” In Europe, Fin­nair in­tro­duced its Sig­na­ture Chef pro­gramme back in 2013, bring­ing spe­cially de­signed dishes from prom­i­nent chefs into its cab­ins. Most re­cently, this in­cluded its first Ja­panese Sig­na­ture Chef, Rika Maezawa, who has cre­ated five sea­sonal menus to high­light Ja­panese home cook­ing for flights from Tokyo to Helsinki, as well as Korean chef Sung-Yeol Nam serv­ing up dishes in­spired by his child­hood on Fin­nair’s flights from Seoul.

Spe­cial menus can help with the fan­fare of pro­mot­ing a brand-new ser­vice – some­thing Hong Kong Air­lines has been do­ing reg­u­larly over the past year. For the launch of its non-stop Van­cou­ver ser­vice last year, the car­rier devel­oped a busi­ness class menu along­side chefs Sam Leung and Gar­ley Leung of Van­cou­ver-based Dy­nasty Seafood Restau­rant, as well as a new sig­na­ture cock­tail called the Bauhinia that was devel­oped by David Wolowid­nyk, the renowned mixol­o­gist at the Fair­mont Pa­cific Rim’s Botanist restau­rant.

For Hong Kong Air­lines’ lat­est long-haul route launch to San Fran­cisco in March, the car­rier part­nered with celebrity chef Chris Cosentino, a win­ner on the TV se­ries Top Chef Masters who now runs the up­scale Cockscomb restau­rant in San Fran­cisco, to de­velop a unique busi­ness class menu for flights leav­ing the US city. How­ever, not ev­ery route launched by the air­line gets this treat­ment, since the lo­gis­tics of sup­ply­ing

A cur­rent trend is col­lab­o­ra­tions with independent chefs from renowned restau­rants

nu­mer­ous menu op­tions is more com­pli­cated; de­vel­op­ing unique menus takes longer, and in­volves sig­nif­i­cant re­work­ing of chefs’ recipes in or­der to ad­e­quately repli­cate their dishes on board to counter fac­tors like al­ti­tude and in-cabin prepa­ra­tion.

“Many chefs that we’ve col­lab­o­rated with have lit­tle to no ex­pe­ri­ence in the air­line ca­ter­ing en­vi­ron­ment so it can be a steep learn­ing curve for ev­ery­one in­volved,” says Birt. “The de­vel­op­ment of a stan­dard menu is com­par­a­tively easy as the chefs in­volved will have past ex­pe­ri­ence of air­line ca­ter­ing, so they will know what will and won’t work, whereas a col­lab­o­ra­tion chef likely wouldn’t.”


Air­lines don’t al­ways need to part­ner with lo­cal chefs in or­der to high­light cui­sine unique to a par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion, how­ever. Many of­fer lo­calised menus that give a peek into the cui­sine of a par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion while also pro­vid­ing a fa­mil­iar taste to travellers re­turn­ing home.

When it comes to high­light­ing the unique and var­ied cui­sine of one’s home coun­try, few air­lines have done as ex­ten­sive a job as Ja­panese car­rier All Nip­pon Air­ways (ANA). For the past five years, ANA has ro­tated the menus on its in­ter­na­tional flights ev­ery three months as part of its Tastes of Ja­pan by ANA se­ries, each time show­cas­ing culi­nary high­lights from three of Ja­pan’s 47 pre­fec­tures. In De­cem­ber, the air­line in­tro­duced the se­cond phase of its cam­paign, fo­cus­ing in­stead on the tra­di­tional fare of one of the coun­try’s eight re­gions. The first area ex­plored was Hokkaido, while last month saw the launch of a new Kyushuthemed menu. “When de­cid­ing which re­gion to fo­cus on for Tastes of Ja­pan, we look into his­tor­i­cally prom­i­nent months and years, such as Hokkaido’s 150th nam­ing an­niver­sary or Kyushu’s 150th an­niver­sary of the Meiji Restora­tion,” said an ANA spokesper­son.

In the case of the new Kyushu-in­spired menu, which will run un­til the end of Au­gust, this in­cludes dishes such as smoked cut­tle­fish and egg­plant tar­tar curry with Miyazaki Caviar 1983, which is be­ing served to first class pas­sen­gers on the air­line’s f lights to North Amer­ica and Europe. Busi­ness class pas­sen­gers on f lights to North Amer­ica, Europe and Mex­ico, mean­while, can ex­pect to find dishes such as mar­i­nated stir-fried Kin­boshis­agabuta pork, egg­plant and cu­cum­ber with chopped Ja­panese leek. ANA is also of­fer­ing pas­sen­gers a range of up to 76 dif­fer­ent types of kokushu – Ja­panese sake, shochu and mil­let brandy – at its Tokyo Haneda, Tokyo Narita and Kan­sai lounges. Hav­ing a ro­tat­ing menu is not with­out its chal­lenges. “We start de­vel­op­ing menus up to a year prior, and make an ef­fort to or­der just the right amount to pre­vent waste,” said the ANA spokesper­son.


Some air­lines go to even greater lengths to give their cus­tomers a culi­nary treat. Korean Air, for in­stance, took over Je­dong Farm on Jeju Is­land back in the 1990s, and launched its one-of-a-kind “From Farm to Cloud” con­cept. To this day, meals in busi­ness and first class are pre­pared us­ing in­gre­di­ents such as beef, chicken and veg­eta­bles sourced di­rectly from Korean Air’s own farm.

Aus­tralian flag car­rier Qan­tas, mean­while, col­lab­o­rated with the Univer­sity of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Cen­tre to de­velop a tai­lored menu for “com­bat­ing sleep dis­rup­tion” in the run-up to the March launch of its 17 plus-hour f lights be­tween Perth and Lon­don.

“The menu we are tri­alling on the Perth to Lon­don route will con­tinue to of­fer a se­lec­tion of cus­tomer favourites, but it has some spe­cial in­gre­di­ent ad­di­tions and ex­clu­sions,” said Neil Perry, Aus­tralian celebrity chef and Qan­tas’s cre­ative di­rec­tor of food, bev­er­age and ser­vice. For ex­am­ple, par­tic­u­lar in­gre­di­ents such as chilli are re­stricted to spe­cific times of the day – ie not just be­fore pas­sen­gers are planning to sleep. In­stead, hot cho­co­late, which in­cludes the sleep-in­duc­ing amino acid tryp­to­phan, is served at bed­time. Leafy green veg­eta­bles as well as cu­cum­ber, cel­ery and straw­ber­ries are also more prom­i­nent in the menu ow­ing to the hy­drat­ing ben­e­fits they of­fer, and lighter meal op­tions such as tuna poke salad bowls have been added. Pro­bi­otic-in­fused drinks, such as or­ganic kom­bucha by Rem­edy and cold­pressed juice shots are also in­cluded in the menu.

Of course, many travellers pre­fer to opt for a dif­fer­ent age-old sleep­ing aide: al­co­hol. The qual­ity of on­board of­fer­ings has im­proved ap­pre­cia­bly in re­cent years, as can be seen from Busi­ness Trav­eller’s an­nual “Cel­lars in the Sky” wine-tast­ing awards.

Tak­ing a novel ap­proach, last year Cathay Pa­cific launched its own unique craft beer, specif­i­cally de­signed to be served at high al­ti­tudes where pas­sen­gers’ pal­ettes are al­tered. Devel­oped by Cathay Pa­cific and the Hong Kong Beer Co, the craft beer – named Betsy af­ter the air­line’s first Dou­glas DC-3 air­craft – of­fers a sweeter taste than your av­er­age beer, in or­der to com­pen­sate for the changes in taste per­cep­tion while up in the air.

For Chilean car­rier LATAM, pre­sen­ta­tion is key. Last Novem­ber, the air­line gave its long-haul econ­omy class din­ing a con­sid­er­able over­haul, scrap­ping the tra­di­tional tray set-up in favour of in­di­vid­ual dishes and re­mov­ing many of the side op­tions in favour of one sin­gle main, which is about 50 per cent larger than pre­vi­ously.

Even cut­lery is be­ing given re­newed at­ten­tion – de­spite pas­sen­gers dis­play­ing a fond­ness for pinch­ing the odd salt and pep­per shaker for their col­lec­tions. On its in­au­gu­ral f light to Los Angeles in De­cem­ber 2017, Hong Kong Air­lines un­veiled an eye-catch­ing set of Bauhinia-in­spired cut­lery fea­tur­ing seed pod dishes, leaf-shaped plates and dim sum-in­spired salt and pep­per pots. Turk­ish Air­lines, mean­while, has added a touch of class to its meal trays, with a flick­er­ing can­dle-ef­fect light to give guests a “Can­dlelit din­ner in the sky”.


Giv­ing cus­tomers greater con­trol over what and when they eat is also start­ing to gain mo­men­tum. Qatar Air­ways of­fers its pas­sen­gers in first and busi­ness class a Din­ing-on-De­mand à la carte menu, which en­ables travellers to or­der and eat their meals at a time of their choos­ing.

Lo­gis­ti­cally, how­ever, such a ser­vice can be highly de­mand­ing: Cathay Pa­cific tri­alled its own dine-on-de­mand ser­vice last year, how­ever this quickly dis­ap­peared af­ter it proved un­fea­si­ble.

Other car­ri­ers are choos­ing to in­crease pas­sen­gers’ op­tions by of­fer­ing a pre-se­lect meal that can be cho­sen up to 24 hours be­fore their f light. Back in Au­gust last year, Qatar Air­ways be­gan rolling out its Pre-Se­lect Din­ing ser­vice on cer­tain routes to Europe, North and South Amer­ica, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. Air China, mean­while, tri­alled a sim­i­lar con­cept last year for first and busi­ness class pas­sen­gers on a num­ber of its routes to North Amer­ica, Europe, Africa and Aus­trala­sia.

Few of these ser­vices, how­ever, are quite as renowned as Sin­ga­pore Air­lines’ Book the Cook con­cept. Avail­able to first, busi­ness and, to a lim­ited ex­tent, pre­mium econ­omy pas­sen­gers, Book the Cook has be­come an iconic fix­ture of the air­line’s in-f light ca­ter­ing.

Some air­lines go to even greater lengths to give their cus­tomers a culi­nary treat


Of course, not all developments in the in-f light din­ing sphere have been pos­i­tively re­ceived by pas­sen­gers. As legacy car­ri­ers face in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion es­pe­cially from bud­get car­ri­ers, many have be­gun in­tro­duc­ing fea­tures that bear the dis­tinct hall­mark of low­cost travel, and in the culi­nary sphere that has largely taken the form of buy-on-board din­ing.

For full-ser­vice car­ri­ers, whose fares typ­i­cally in­clude all in-f light meals, the in­tro­duc­tion of pur­chasable meals and snacks has been met with re­sis­tance. This has been the case for Bri­tish Air­ways, which in­tro­duced the con­cept with Marks & Spencer prod­ucts on its short­haul and do­mes­tic f lights from Lon­don Heathrow and Gatwick in early 2017.

Abu Dhabi-based Eti­had also in­tro­duced the ser­vice to econ­omy pas­sen­gers on se­lect routes (no­tably Lon­don, Paris and des­ti­na­tions in Aus­tralia), of­fer­ing items rang­ing from cold brewed cof­fee to glasses of cham­pagne – at a charge.

How­ever for the most part, the in­creased com­pe­ti­tion in the ca­ter­ing depart­ment has proved to be a boon for travellers across all classes – with no sign that the in­dus­try’s ap­petite for in­no­va­tion is wan­ing.

LEFT AND ABOVE: Cu­min-spiced beef salad aboard Qan­tas; and a dish from Fin­nair’s sig­na­ture menu by Chef Rika Maezawa

CLOCK­WISE FROM THIS PAGE TOP: ANA’s Tastes of Ja­pan of­fer­ing; an on­board chef on Turk­ish Air­lines; Fin­nair Chef Rika Maezawa and one of her Sig­na­ture Menus; a CX meal; and a bot­tle of kom­bucha by Rem­edy and pro­bi­otic lemon­ade by Qan­tas

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