Top chefs and national dishes are making bad airline food a thing of the past, writes Robert Upe.
Boston lobster thermidor, wagyu sirloin and red Thai curry duck are on a menu created by celebrity chefs including New York's Alfred Portale, Kyoto's Yoshihiro Murata and Sydney's Matt Moran.
But to taste some of these dishes you may have to pay as much as $6000 for a fold-out table for one. That's the price of a sleeper suite on board an A380 superjumbo with Singapore Airlines from Australia to Singapore return, and the menu is part of the luxury offering for premium passengers.
Portale, Murata and Moran are on the airline's nine-strong global culinary panel of celebrity chefs who have a kitchen cabinet full of Michelin stars between them and who are at the forefront of creating the airline's menus, not just for first and business classes, but also more basic dishes in economy.
Carlo Cracco, a two-star Michelin chef in Milan, is the latest appointee and his classic Italian fare was rolled out on Singapore Airlines' flights in January. Celebrity chefs are a phenomenon at many airlines.
Qantas has Neil Perry on board, Heston Blumenthal consults with British Airways, Air France has Michelin superstar Joel Robuchon, and Peter Gordon has his seatbelt fastened with Air New Zealand.
That the airlines are taking their food seriously is an understatement. Dave Boyte, the market development manager for airline comparison site Skyscanner, says airlines now realise that regular flyers can be swayed depending on the quality of meals.
"Airline food used to have a reputation for being bland, but the quality of inflight meals has improved massively as airlines place greater importance on serving good food at altitude," he says.
Wherever you are sitting on the plane, he says, the food is a welcome distraction, especially on long-haul flights. "People get bored and look forward to the food and movies. Any interruption is welcome.
"And it's like a wedding ... people remember the food."
Hermann Freidanck, the food and beverage manager for Singapore Airlines, agrees.
"Although our customers are flying with us to get from A to B, the inflight experience is a significant part of why they choose to fly with us. If you think back to your recent flights, more often than not great food is the most memorable part of the experience.
"Our customers have ample time to reflect on their meals and, as the popularity of cooking shows has demonstrated, expectations have only increased."
Singapore Airlines has an annual food and beverage budget of about $500 million and has a large kitchen facility at Changi Airport, where 50,000 meals are prepared daily. (Emirates has an even bigger kitchen operation in Dubai, where 175,000 meals are made each day.)
Within the Singapore facility, which I was able to tour recently, there are several specialist kitchens for different cuisines, such as Indian, halal, Japanese, vegetarian, and even dim-sum. The airline is at pains to point out that all the meals are made from fresh, seasonal produce, and all the meals are less than 24 hours old when served inflight.
It is also at pains to maintain high hygiene standards. During the inspection of the kitchens I was outfitted with a white coat, hat and face mask. Visitors also need to remove jewellery and scrub down at sinks like surgeons before passing through a wind tunnel designed to blow away any dust remnants.
"The first thing to make the headlines [and create a PR disaster for airlines] is a food-poisoning case," Freidanck says. "The second thing that will make headlines is a foreign object in the food. That's why so much care is taken."
Among all this super cleanliness, there's also an omelet station where 5000 of the egg dishes are made each day and a test kitchen that simulates an aircraft's cabin pressure, which can lead to the deprivation of a person's taste sensation by up to 30 per cent.
Apart from the volume of dishes that airlines need to turn out daily, one of their biggest culinary challenges is to overcome this distortion of the flavours of food and wine, and therefore they are careful to select meals that will reconstitute well and wines that are bold.
Freidanck says the main issue is serving meals that are moist and full of flavour. "This is why we always feature soups and salads for starters, and our ICP [international culinary panel] chefs have certainly developed a good sense of what flavours and textures are robust enough to be served on-board. The same principle applies with our wine experts, and explains why our wine selection aims for a primary fruit character."
In a painstakingly thorough process, the Singapore Airlines chefs put forward their menus to Freidanck and then each dish is analysed for ingredients and whether it will be suitable to the airline's cooking process (initial preparation of the dish at the airport's catering facility, blast chilling, then being reheated on board).
Other factors considered are the weight of the dish, and cabin crew and galley space constraints for plating up.
William Angliss food expert Felicity Fraser says that at altitude our taste buds are not as receptive, therefore it is harder to detect flavours. "The compression effect on our sinuses at altitude deadens the salt and sugar and all those things that bring the flavours out of food," she says.
One solution is to overseason the food once it arrives on your tray table, but Fraser says it also pays to keep an eye on what reconstitutes better in the aircraft kitchen.
"For example, pre-cooked chicken fillets that are reheated are not going to be as good as chicken thigh, but chicken is going to be better than beef," she says. "A lot of people order vegetarian and keep away from protein because it can be very tough. And the reason that there are casserole-type dishes with a rich tomato sauce is that liquidy dishes will reconstitute better."
She says advances in kitchen technology, such as blast chillers, have improved the quality of airline food.
"It's a cook/chill revolution," she says. "If food is allowed to cool down normally it could take 30 minutes, which means it is still cooking. But food put in a blast chiller stops cooking immediately and it is kept inert and at the correct level of preparedness.
"Then it's a matter of bringing it up to temperature quickly in regethermic-type ovens without the food stewing for a long time and drying out. It's like snap freezing, but also snap reheating."
Much fanfare is made of airline food in the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards. At Farnborough, England, last July, Malaysian Airlines won "best airline signature dish" for its first- and business-class appetiser of chargrilled beef, chicken and lamb satay sticks.
The airline serves at least 15,000 of them each day. The sticks are marinated for 18 hours in tumeric, garlic, galangal and lemongrass, and grilled on charcoal at Malaysian Airline's inflight kitchen at Kuala Lumpur before being warmed and smothered in sauce on the plane.
The Skytrax award for best economy catering was won by Singapore Airlines, best business-class catering by Swiss International Air Lines, and best first-class catering by Etihad. Despite the improved standards, indiscretions of the past are never far from the mind.
The food and travel blog Not Quite Nigella recalls a cracked, dried cannelloni on the now-defunct Air Paradise, and Fraser squirms remembering a dead cockroach in her fried rice on a Bali flight.
But as Freidanck says: "Airline food doesn't have to be bad. We have the technology [and celeb chefs] to make it good."
Robert Upe travelled to Singapore Airlines kitchens courtesy of the airline.
Now being served
Singapore Airlines "Book a Cook" service for first- and business-class passengers allows them to order from an online menu of 60 dishes before they fly. Gourmet choices include lobster and wagyu. Served on fine bone china and crystalware.
Qantas is testing its own online premium menu, Select on Q-Eat, on flights between Los Angeles and Australia.
Emirates serves High Tea — complete with scones and clotted cream, small cocktail sandwiches and fruit — for first-class passengers in the A380 on-board lounge on selected routes.
Air New Zealand's business-class beef burger is gaining legendary status. The Angus patty is surrounded by caramelised onion, cheese, streaky bacon and salad with tomato, carrot and chives. Mayonnaise and beetroot relish top it off.
As well as regularly featuring dishes by leading Hong Kong restaurants, Cathay Pacific introduced its own signature Chinese dishes in August. Launch dishes in economy included braised beef in chu hou sauce and in business, slow-cooked pork belly with Hakka mustard greens.
Food worth flying for
Terry Durack, The Sydney Morning Herald food critic
Best meal in the air It was on a short-haul London-Rome Alitalia flight in the mid-'90s. A good chicken brodo, a simple spaghetti dish, veal saltimbocca with a mini bottle of chianti and a slab of grana padana cheese with a mini bottle of grappa. Like eating in your own private trattoria.
Worst meal in the air They usually feature some kind of boring overcooked grey meat matter bathed in variations on ghastly gluey gravy. Several airlines have been guilty of this, the most recent being a British Airways flight to Singapore. It's why I generally take my own sandwiches.
Best meal at an airport Airports are getting better all the time, as are lounges, if you're lucky enough to get in. The Cathay Business lounge in Hong Kong has a noodle bar serving made-to-order noodles and dumplings.
Advice to airlines on how they can improve their food Don't try to do restaurant food; the odds are against you. Try to keep things seasonal, fresh and uncomplicated.
Can celebrity chefs make a difference to airline food? Only if they're rigorously built into the business, as opposed to being a token consultant who sends in ideas and has no idea how they're implemented. Neil Perry and Qantas knit well into each other at all levels of the business. On an international level, I just groan when they announce a new celebrity chef — yet another European dickhead or American hustler who knows nothing about air pressure or international travel, and who feels the food has to be complex and fussy in order to truly reflect their artistry.
Favourite airport for food Copenhagen. You walk into the baggage terminal and get delicious smells from the Danish hot dog stand. And you can pick up brilliant rye breads and Scandi foods in the departures hall for the trip.
Joanna Savill, Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide co-editor
Best meal in the air The Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad can do great food, including really nice "Arabic mezze" plates. Mind you, I've only had a mezze plate when I've been lucky enough to fly business class.
Worst meal in the air Most airline meals verge on tragic. But a recent London-Paris British Airways packaged breakfast of egg, mayonnaise and tomato in a croissant does stand out.
Best meal at an airport Ramen at Narita. Then again, I'm not sure you can ever eat badly in Japan.
Advice to airlines on how they can improve their food Keeping it simple has to be top of the list. Using decent-quality products — not gummy, cheap yoghurts and reconstituted egg. And serving things at a sensible temperature — not boiling hot and overcooked and not freezing cold.
Can celebrity chefs make a difference to airline food? It's a big responsibility for any chef. I think in general Neil Perry has done a good job for Qantas. But it must be hard to have your name on the menu when the way your food is cooked and served is beyond your control.
Favourite airport for food Narita again. You can buy gorgeous snacks and crackers and beautifully packaged food items at the airport.
Lyndey Milan, chef, author, TV foodie
Best meal in the air 1985 on Japan Airlines — my first-ever taste of kobe beef. The whole fillet was brought for us to see, then carved in front of us and served. Tender and amazing.
Worst meal in the air Economy class breakfast on any airline: watery scrambled eggs, chewy bacon, bland sausage. You name it, we've all had them.
Best meal at an airport Pre-flight dining in Sydney's Qantas International Lounge. Any meal you care to mention from breakfast to dinner, beautifully prepared and served.
Advice to airlines on how they can improve their food Only cook things that can hold up well in the air after preparation. So forget about the scrambled eggs!
Can celebrity chefs really make a difference to airline food? Yes. I love that on Qantas you can order a steak sandwich with chilli jam at any time during your flight, so you can sleep and eat when you like. Thank you, Neil Perry.
Favourite airport for food When flying you tend to be offered too much food, so I prefer never to eat in airports.
Ardyn Bernoth, SMH Good Food editor
Best meal in the air Several years ago I got a free upgrade to Qantas first-class and the best food I've eaten at 35,000 feet. Neil Perry's food is executed deliciously, chosen judiciously (fresh and light, not oily and rich) and while not the standard of his restaurants, is good enough to make the flight feel like the start of a holiday.
Worst meal in the air A flaccid burger followed by a Mars Bar on a domestic American Airlines flight.
Best meal at an airport Unquestionably the Qantas First Lounge, designed by Marc Newson, at Sydney Airport: chilli squid washed down with French bubbles.
Advice to airlines on how they can improve their food Keep it fresh and simple and don't use anything that needs to be reconstituted, such as eggs.
Can celebrity chefs make a difference to airline food? If Perry's food on Qantas is anything to go by, yes. If top chefs turn their know-how and technical knowledge to creating food for altitude they can produce delicious results.
Favourite airport for food Hong Kong Airport provides many tasty yum cha options. You won't find a cafe as good as Shannon Bennett's (from Vue De Monde) cafe at Melbourne Airport, though.
Compiled by Nina Karnikowski