Airplane food used to come up short when compared with meals everywhere, but not anymore.
From lobster Thermidor to charcoal grilled satays, airlines have been doing much more in recent years to deliver tasty meals, even signing on Michelin-starred chefs and prestigious hotels to design menus.
Airlines are also more receptive to customer feedback and are willing to invest more time and money in menu development, says Mr Christian Bruhns, executive chef at airline service provider Dnata Singapore.
It supplies catering services to 22 airlines including Air Asia, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. They prepare 90,000 meals a week for roughly 800 flights out of Singapore Changi Airport.
Mr Bruhns, a German citizen with a background working in hotels such as Hilton International and St Regis Singapore, says passengers partially have budget airlines to thank for better meals on board.
"With the arrival of budget airlines, food and entertainment became prime selling points for full-service airlines. It is about providing customers with the full experience and airlines are now willing to spend more on food," he says.
The customer's sophisticated palette has also prompted changes. "The demography of passengers is more cosmopolitan, with more diverse as well as refined tastes. Customers and airlines are willing to try new things," he adds.
Ms Petrina Lim, course manager of baking and culinary science at Temasek Polytechnic, says technology and quality control have also played their part.
The food service system now uses the latest control systems and technology to support mass production, she says. This makes inflight catering "more efficient at producing foods that are more consistent in quality as well as cost effective", she notes.
For example, it used to be that blast chillers would rapidly cool the outside of food, but the internal temperature would still be warm, which could damage the quality of ingredients.
Now, blast chillers use high-tech fans and new cooling systems, so food cools more rapidly and evenly. This helps preserve the taste, texture and nutrient value of the meal.
Cooking methods and equipment have also improved. Research and development teams are on hand to help chefs tweak recipes so sauces and jellies remain the right consistency when 10,000m in the air, for example.
And greater accuracy in thermostats and heat distribution in combination ovens - which can simultaneously roast and steam food, so ingredients do not dry out as they cook - also allow greater consistency and quality control when cooking.
Some combination ovens, such as those used in the kitchens of airline service provider SATS, are even controlled by touch screen. This allows chefs to programme cooking times and temperatures for more than 50 dishes in the oven.
Pressing buttons rather than fiddling with dials reduces room for error and produces a consistent product each time, says Mr Rick Stephen, director of kitchens for SATS Catering.
He says passengers also have combination ovens to thank for tender meats and fluffy rice. Some airlines started using combination ovens instead of standard roasting ovens to reheat food on board about eight years ago. The addition of steam in the reheating process keeps the meal moist.
It is all part of the art and science of food preparation, which is not unlike preparing a banquet in a large hotel, where dishes are prepared and served 200, 500, or even 2,000 plates at a time.
There is a notable difference, however. While meals from a hotel kitchen are served minutes after they are prepared, airline meals need to be prepared anywhere from 14 to 18 hours before they are loaded onto a plane.
This means hygiene is paramount and there are dozens of protocols in place to ensure food is not only delicious but also safe to eat.
Once food is fully cooked, it is placed in a blast chiller. All cooked food must be reduced in temperature to 4 deg C within four hours.
It stays in the chiller for six hours before it is plated into individual servings and then returned to refrigerate for another six hours. This prevents any bacterial growth and also preserves freshness.
Getting meals ready for passengers on board the plane usually starts about 11/2 hours before take-off. The meal's components are set on trays, which are placed into meal carts and stored in refrigerated trucks as they go through security checks.
They are then loaded onto the plane about 15 minutes before take-off.
As the meals are prepped and loaded, the temperature of the food is consistently monitored via infrared thermometers. The food should stay at a temperature of around 8 to 10 deg C. If it hits 15 deg C or higher, it must be thrown away.
Along the way, every step of the food's preparation and transportation is recorded. The name of every person who handles the food is recorded too. This ensures that if anything does go wrong with the food, catering services are able to trace the cause.
This is no small task for companies such as SATS, which produces more than 70,000 meals a day.
SATS Catering Centre 1, a four-storey, 64,000 sq m building in Changi which caters specifically to Singapore Airlines, prepares an average of 43,000 meals every day - and there are no short cuts despite the massive scale of cooking.
Thousands of loaves and pastries are baked fresh in its ovens each day. All stocks and sauces are made from scratch with no chemical flavourings or preservatives.
The SATS soup kitchen makes 600 litres of chicken stock daily. The Malay kitchen spends three hours making its classic sambal and six hours on its satay sauce.
The satays are skewered and cooked by hand over a charcoal grill, just as they would be in a hawker stall. Tandoori kebabs are roasted in a real tandoor.
Authenticity in the SATS kitchen is key.
"Whether we are serving curry, Japanese food or Chinese food, it needs to taste like the real thing," says Mr Stephen.
This is why there are 11 kitchens in SATS Catering Centre 1, each with its own scope, run by chefs native to that cuisine.
The pad thai in the Thai kitchen is made by Thai chefs. Similarly, the Japanese kitchen is run by Japanese chefs, while the Indian kitchen is managed by chefs from North and South India. There is even a dim sum kitchen and every morsel is hand-crafted by a chef from Hong Kong.
But the complicated process of cooking, chilling and then reheating means that inflight catering cannot do everything. Food that should be crisp, such as spring rolls or tempura, become soggy in flight.
Delicate ingredients and produce, including asparagus or sugar snap peas, and proteins, such as red snapper, can become limp, discoloured or fall apart during the cooking-chilling-reheating process.
Also, some leaner meats such as lamb loin, pork loin and duck breast dry out easily and become tough during the reheating process.
Identifying these issues is a challenge for chefs such as executive chef Simone Cerea of the Regent Singapore, who is overseeing the hotel's culinary collaboration with All Nippon Airways (ANA).
"Compared with preparing a meal in a restaurant, we have to work with numerous restrictions and constraints. There's limited preparation space, storage constraints on board and so on. And with the need to reheat meals, we have to overcome the challenge of keeping the texture and flavour of the meat and fish consistent.
"For vegetables, you need to ensure you maintain their vibrant colours as well as the crunchiness. We also have to be mindful of dietary restrictions when designing an inflight menu. For example, no peanuts are allowed in the food because of allergy concerns. We also avoid citrus as its flavour profile changes over time, which would affect the food's consistency," he says.
ANA refreshes its menu every quarter and coming up with new menu items is a process which takes anywhere from a few months to a year.
Based on feedback from customers, seasonal produce and current food trends, the airline will suggest menu items to the chefs and caterers.
Recipes are developed, tested and selected according to the needs of each flight.
A flight from Singapore to Tokyo will not serve the same meal options as a flight from Singapore to London, for example.
Which meals are served on board depends on the clientele and the destination, says chef Gwendal Hamon, British Airway's menu design manager for flights to Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
"What we serve changes from one region to another. Lamb cutlet isn't very popular in North America but is extremely popular in the Middle East. Indian curries have become extremely popular in British cuisine. Curries reheat very well on an aircraft, so we always try to feature a curry on flights out of London," he says.
Likewise, lamb and beef are popular dishes on flights to Australia, while chicken and fish are popular on flights in Asia.
Flavour is an important factor when designing an airline menu.
"Braised meats such as short ribs and beef cheeks work very well on an aircraft because the onboard reheating process concentrates the flavours even more," he says.
"We always have to be thinking that if the flavour profile is weak on the ground, then customers won't be able to taste it in the air."
This is because the air pressure and low humidity when flying at 10,000m dries out passengers' noses and mouths, which reduces their ability to smell and taste by about 33 per cent.
This means unremarkable wines become terrible in the air and delicately flavoured foods become bland or unpalatable.
This is why drinks such as tomato juice and heavily spiced dishes such as a black bean and beef stir fry or curry are popular on planes.
One flavour which travels well is umami, which can be described as a savoury taste found in ingredients such as beef, tomato, parmesan and mushrooms.
Dishes with a sauce also travel well because the sauce helps the meal retain its moisture.
To test the food, some airlines and catering services such as SATS have even built simulated aircraft cabins.
Once sealed, the cabin replicates the air pressure inside an airplane flying at 10,000m. Inside is an airplane galley, with the same ovens and microwaves used on board, so chefs and airline executives can reheat and taste test inflight meals and wines under the same conditions passengers would experience in the air.
Once meals pass multiple rounds of taste tests to ensure optimal flavour, they are ready to be served.
But at the end of the day, chef Bruhns of Dnata says seasoning is subjective.
"Everyone's tastebuds are a little different. This is why each tray comes with a little packet of pepper and salt."
This article was first published on Dec 21, 2014.
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