Fly food: The secret world of mile-high cuisine
This could be an article about the dark side of airplane food, about overpriced Doritos snacks and lame sandwich sets. But this will not be that article, and will instead be a happy one about why good airplane food today, is good.
For some, food is an additional luxury. For most, the core competency of an airline is not how it feeds but how it transports one safely across the globe. Yet, as airline companies compete ever so ferociously, one of the battlegrounds is the domain of food. What airplane menus offer are taken very seriously by the airline industry and passengers alike: the annual Skytrax Airline Awards recognizes airlines with the best on-board catering (e.g. Malaysia Airlines – Best Airline Signature Dish 2013), and devoted websites like this one honor great meals with accolades and nasty ones with harsh criticism.
It’s hard for food to be appetizing in the sky, because the reduced air pressure can really mess with tastebuds, making them 30% less sensitive to flavors, and because the low humidity dries out nasal passages, which are also important for taste. Other tricky details that chefs have to deal with include: the delicate time lag between food preparation and consumption, the potential change in taste quality when food is reheated on-board, and the weight of five to eight hundred dishes! (note: the Airbus A380 model can carry a maximum of 853 passengers)
What’s a good airline to do, but to rope in the best? Michelin-starred chefs whom some airline companies have got on board include Georges Blanc (Singapore Airlines), Peter Gordon (Air New Zealand), Joel Robuchon (Air France), and Heston Blumenthal (British Airways). These famous chefs oversee the in-flight menus, which can change up to 12 times a year for First Class, to keep frequent flyers from being bored at 38,000 feet.
Let’s take a look at how Singapore Airlines does it.
Before the chefs confirm a menu, meals are sampled in customized kitchens that simulate in-flight conditions for more accurate taste-tests. More guidelines shape these meals, which have to be visually-appealing and textually-diverse, while achieving a standardized tastiness—it is a sad plane trip indeed if one regrets picking seared venison loin after envying a neighbor’s grilled black cod!
Then, the Economy Class kitchen cooks 32,000 meals a day, which is like feeding all the students from the Tufts classes of 2011-2017, every 24 hours. The meals are prepared under intense hygiene standards (it only takes one accident to forever mar a reputation). Bacteria usually form between 59-131˚ F. Hence, to guard against this, all cooked meals are immediately moved into blast chillers for 4 hours at 35˚ F. Shortly after, they will be carted off into planes and re-heated on-board.
When planning a menu, airlines have to take into consideration vegetarian, religious, and other kinds of dietary specifications. For Singapore Airlines, they have 6 different kinds of Vegetarian Meals and Special Diet meals like “Ulcer Diet Meal”—not the most appetizing example, but now you know what to get if you ever nurse an ulcer while flying Singapore Airlines.
The world of airplane food is a bustling yet unseen one. The next time you hop on a plane, take a look at the meals, and then take a step back to imagine how it arrived on your plate. If you’re lucky, what you see is something a celebrity chef cooked up just for you. For the rest of us, may your flight be short and uneventful.
-Min Yi Tan
Cover photo source.