Chicken Or Beef? Secrets Of First And Business Class Airline Dining
Commercial aviation has been a part of our lives for over 100 years. Despite this, most of us have no idea how it works. Aside from the technology (read: magic) that allows a tin can to soar through the air, one of the biggest mysteries resides in a small and easy to overlook part of the aircraft – the galley.
Though just a few square metres in size, these ‘kitchens’ are capable of serving hundreds of dishes in a single flight – all without a stove. How do they achieve such a feat? It’s largely thanks to an army of cooks at catering facilities dotted across the globe. The Emirates Flight Catering facility in Dubai alone reportedly makes around 150,000 meals in a single day.
Once pre-cooked to the required amount, which is generally 60 per cent of the way for chicken and 30 per cent for steak, dishes are snap frozen about 10-12 hours prior to each flight and transported to awaiting aircraft. When the seat belt sign is switched off, the real magic begins.
There are no gas stoves or fancy gadgets on planes for safety reasons, just basic convection ovens and perhaps a rice cooker or bain-marie to prepare scrambled eggs. Prior to service, meals are placed into onboard ovens and then reheated to specific temperatures.
Economy meals come fully assembled in individual foil containers, with salads and desserts then added to suit the pre-determined meal plan. However, that doesn’t cut the mustard for Business and First Class guests who are used to a more bespoke experience.
At the pointy end of the plane, dishes are artfully arranged like a fine dining restaurant.
The base elements such as potatoes, beans, steaks, and salmon fillets come pre-packaged in bulk containers called ‘kits’, which are then plated up for each individual order. They’re still heated in foil containers, but extra presentation makes all the difference.
Flight attendants are not trained chefs. So, in order to create that restaurant-quality look and also aid with consistency of presentation, a handy visual guide – e.g. mashed potato on the left, fillet mignon on the right, and jus in a circular pattern – is provided to follow.
If you were to stop at watch, it would be like an inflight ballet before your eyes.
Aside from space, one of the key challenges of in-flight dining is reduced taste sensations caused by the pressurised environment. It’s a well-known issue, but what you may not realise is it’s actually our sense of smell which is the one most affected, with the dry air and low pressure drying out our nasal passages.
What does that have to do with our sense of taste? Quite a lot.
As you chew, you’re forcing air through your nasal passages, which carries the smell of food with it. The interplay of taste and smell helps you grasp complex flavours. Without this, you’re limited to the taste receptors of your tongue. This is why everything tastes a bit… different.
Dishes with subtle flavours such as chicken, fish or pasta are the ones that often lose out in the flavour stakes. However, airlines are implementing a clever workaround.
Rather than just adding more salt or pepper, airlines are now focusing on foods with naturally intense flavours. Umami flavours like those in mushrooms, red meats and hard cheeses perform well in the sky, as do citrus, cinnamon, tomato, and ginger. Spice rich dishes such as Thai and Indian curries also maintain their flavour at high altitude.
To that end, if you want a dish that doesn’t taste like the finest grilled cardboard, it’s best to side-step the chicken carbonara in favour of a punchier dish such as beef rendang curry.
Though catering teams are masters of their craft, the stigma of average in-flight food is hard to shake. To get around this, many airlines are collaborating with well-known chefs. You’ve dined at their restaurant, you’ve seen their appearance on Masterchef, so it’s easy to assume their menus for the flight will be top-notch too.
Qantas Airways has worked with chef Neil Perry for over 20 years, while Luke Mangan has been Virgin Australia’s resident chef since 2010. The latest to join the sky-high dining scene is Nelly Robinson from acclaimed restaurant nel. in Sydney. Robinson recently teamed up with Malaysia Airlines to bring a local element to its Australia to Kuala Lumpur routes.
Etihad Airways has taken it a step further with a dedicated Inflight Chef, who can create a custom dining experiences for passengers, while Singapore Airlines is also bringing the heat with a Book the Cook service allowing you to pre-order a range of gourmet meals. While personal chefs may be a bit out of reach for your average passenger, it doesn’t hurt to dream.
The next time you tuck into an inflight meal, take a second to think about the galley, the crew and the aerial ballet they’ve just performed in order to give you that all-important choice: chicken or beef?
(Lead image: Emirates / supplied)
Published 26 February, 2020