Banishing bad airplane food

Banishing bad airplane food

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.

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