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

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