The process of delivering in-flight meals, from menu conception to daily mass production, is akin to that of restaurants, only at a much grander, more detailed scale
Many people have the mistaken notion that the airlines themselves prep and cook the tens of thousands of dishes they carry aboard their flights and serve to the guests. With the hundreds of things it has to worry about, Philippine Airlines (PAL) has been working hand-in-hand with service provider SKY Kitchen Philippines, Inc. (SKPI) for many years now. Think of it as a catering business, where SKPI cranks out an inexhaustible amount of dishes from its kitchen exclusively for each flight. As with any event of such nature, it all starts with proper menu planning.
With the business class having a larger budget, PAL launched its Master Chef Series in 2008, tapping world-class chefs—J Gamboa, Billy King, See Cheong Yan, and Masahiro Mizumoto—to design various international menus for special patrons. Its new roster consists of Clifton Lyles, Bruce Lim, Wataru Hikawa, and Ben Lam. However, Fernando Aracama, executive chef of Aracama Filipino Cuisine, stands out from the rest, being a PAL master chef since its establishment.
Aracama has always had a taste for travel and the food that comes with it. While onboard a PAL aircraft en route to Vermont for culinary studies, he experienced an in-flight meal that made him want to be part of the menu conceptualization process. To be able to deliver the menu designs needed from him, Aracama works closely with the SKPI team and consults its chefs and management for the sourcing of ingredients—which ones would be allowed on the aircraft and which aren’t. “Chicken breast does not do well onboard. You would need to reheat a meal twice: once on the ground and another in the aircraft; you’d get complaints of [the meat] being too dry. Also, the type of vegetables that [we] choose is very crucial. There are vegetables that could withstand a lot of heat when you heat them onboard and there are some that would simply just fall apart,” Aracama says.
He cites pork and chicken to be the most typical and favored ingredients, but he is particularly proud of incorporating bagoong into the latest menu. A proud native of Bacolod City, Aracama takes inspiration from his hometown and its local delicacies as well as his travels both abroad and within the country. His chicken inasal meal is a huge crowd favorite, with the dish included in the PAL business class menu for Filipino cuisine since 2008.
“The people here are very open-minded. They embrace the idea of sourcing local and organic food to put onboard. In the next two years, when we do our next cycle, the elevation will be both literal and figurative in a way that Filipino food will be recognized as the main cuisine of Philippine Airlines,” he shares. Aracama’s current menus include bangus belly a la pobre, gambas ajillo on quinoa salad, and binagoongang baboy with green mango salad relish.
PAL makes sure that the menus are reinvented every two years, with its commissioned master chefs dropping by SKPI every few months for tasting to check if the quality and flavors are spot on and executed properly by the corporation.
Once the menus have been approved and turned over, SKPI then jumps into the routine and produces the dishes based on strict regulations. Its vast kitchen is kept at a constant temperature, nowhere above 16°C, to make sure the food remains fresh and edible. Inside, areas are segregated according to specific jobs and functions. For example, one entire room houses raw vegetables, with employees assigned to wash and peel them. A single employee may be assigned to peel and slice carrots all day long. Another area is also dedicated for meat storage and raw meat handling.
Working on a manpower of 32 cooks for two and a half shifts, all cooking procedures are done in the hot kitchen before the ingredients find their way to the biggest area and heart of the entire space: the cold kitchen, where meals are packaged and portioned for distribution. Since in-flight meals are preserved to be consumed