You may loosen your seat belt now

Airline food has a reputation for being tasteless and unappetising. Very few people have endearing memories of in-flight meals; more often than not they are entirely forgettable, frequently though, they leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Chicken Mousakhan with Apricot Sauce PIC COURTESY / JOE CHUA AGDEPPA

Challenge on board

There are many reasons for this, some of which have nothing to do with the food. Since eating is the sole activity one can participate in the confined environment, plenty of attention must be paid to it for a greater need for satisfaction.

Additionally, cramped seating space in the Economy Class with almost zero elbow-room is not conducive to dining. But every passenger, whether seated in ‘cattle class’ or the more spacious Business and First Class has to contend with dull, flat lighting and the fact that the body undergoes physiological changes at 30,000 feet making even the tastiest dishes look as unappetising as a bad college canteen meal.

Black Cod with Lemon

The challenges and restrictions faced by airline catering services were brought into perspective when a celebrity chef-designed Business Menu was launched on board Qatar Airways in Doha recently. These menus will be available on all of the airlines’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft as well as a few select others.

Chef to the rescue
Tom Aikens, Vineet Bhatia, Ramzi Choueiri and the celebrated Nobu Matsuhisa, were the internationally celebrated chefs selected to develop these gourmet menus. While Aikens and Bhatia run the Michelin-starred Rasoi and Tom Aikens, respectively, in London, Ramzi is one of the most well-known Arabic chefs in the region and Nobu is globally renowned for his eponymous modern Japanese restaurants.

Nobu Matsuhisa

For the chefs the challenge was two-fold, not only did their creations have to dispel the myth that airline food cannot be delicious and memorable but they also had to match the level of excellence passengers associate with them and their restaurants.

“An aircraft,” points out Chef Bhatia, “is essentially a very highly pressurised tube.” The artificial pressure de-sensitises the taste buds, which become numb and unable to pick up subtle tastes and flavours. If the food is to be made tasty the flavours need to be accentuated, made more robust and powerful. “Everything has to be notched up in terms of seasonings and spices, everything has to be a little more, than what you would normally use,” adds Chef Aiken.

Ramzi Choueiri

Dinner will be served
It’s not as easy as it sounds though Bhatia explains, “Certain ingredients are a big no-no. Chilli and garlic can’t be used, because passengers could react badly to the spice and smell; cabbage and cauliflower are out as in a closed environment the smells become more intense. Pre-cooked scallop or squid are out as they become rubbery and inedible when reheated.”

These restrictions only serve as creative fuel for experienced chefs like Chef Ramzi who transformed the traditional, but cumbersome, pastry-wrapped chicken Musakhan into a dainty appetiser with African sauce and pistachios. The dish, explains Chef Ramzi, “has a lot of nice flavours, with a balance between Arabic and Western flavours.”

Tom Aikens

Unlike meals in Economy Class, which are served in pre-packed trays, Business Class meals are plated and served, course by course, by the crew, exactly as you would expect in a fine dining restaurant. (Yes, they do enjoy an envious level of comfort in Business Class!) However, since crews are not trained chefs, the presentation has to be simple and quick and the crew should not take more than three steps per plate. With Nobu’s signature Black Cod Miso for instance, the pre-cooked fish pieces were arranged by the crew on a slice of lemon, placed on a plate, and served with a small bowl of pre-prepared Miso-Mirin sauce.

Vineet Bhatia

Fresh take
However, unlike a restaurant, where a meal is freshly cooked and served, in-flight food is cooked between seven-nine hours before it is served. Within half an hour of cooking the food is chilled to under four degrees C to prevent any microbial contamination and loss of flavour and then held at a temperature of two degrees C until it is loaded on to the flight. Just before service the meals are re-heated in special ovens.

This elaborate process means that nothing is 100% cooked at the catering unit, as it will be overcooked by the time it reaches the passenger. For instance, even a preparation as simple as steamed rice has to be slightly moist when packed otherwise it will turn dry and hard when served. Therefore, while planning a menu, says Aikens, “You have to take into consideration that the food is first cooked and then re-heated.”

It’s not easy to offer memorable meals that are both visually appealing and tasty to airline passengers, but it is clearly not an insurmountable challenge.

Published Mid-Day, November 21, 2012

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