Qantas is celebrating a 20-year collaboration with Sydney chef Neil Perry this month, and it reminded me of the non-joke attributed to Jerry Seinfeld: "What's the deal with airline food?"
What is the deal these days? Has plane food improved measurably with the advent of celebrity chefs? Or is the foil tray of congealed mystery meat a thing we're still confronted with far too often?
To answer my own question, I'd say both things are true. In the past five years, I've had a few airline meals I'd be happy to pay for in a restaurant and a few that have taken a special talent to make them so truly unappetising.
Qantas gets the gong for the most memorable dish I've had in the past few years – a delicate vegetarian lasagne on a flight to Dallas. And Malaysia Airlines, I'm sorry, but the hard bit of savoury pastry you once served as a meal from KL rates as the worst.
As one might expect, the excellent meals were served in the expensive end of the plane and the worst meals were placed in front of me in the economy cabins of cut-price carriers. But even business class doesn't guarantee a meal commensurate with the price of the ticket. There are soggy croissants, tasteless chicken biryanis and mushy vegetables up there too. And some low-priced carriers do a decent job with very little budget.
The main reason you're on the flying restaurant in the first place is to get somewhere, which is why some airlines serve you meals almost grudgingly, as if it wasn't really their role. The food service is hard work for flight attendants, so that awful meal is often flung down in front of you with a "like it or shut up" attitude. I've seen meals on Orange is the New Black that look tastier than a few I've eaten in the air.
Overall, the kind of meals we've been served over the years haven't changed much at all, at least to my taste. There may be a little more effort to include a salad or fruit, but the hard bread roll, cold butter, slab of cheddar cheese and crackers, the chicken or beef under foil, and the slice of tasteless cake, is pretty much what you got in economy in 1987 and what you get now. These kitchens are stuck in a rut.
I appreciate it's not an easy thing to cater for a few hundred cooped-up individuals whose tastebuds have been affected by the low pressure of cabins and who only pick at their food because they are bored. They're a tough crowd to impress.
I'm always grateful for food that isn't over-stewed, meals that include vegetables that have some crunch, and a dessert that's just not fake cream and sugar. It's amazing how many airlines think a slice of sugary "black forest cake" is preferable to, say, carrot cake or poached fruit. I'm sure the anti-sugar brigade has a lot to say about this.
For this reason, I usually bring my own snacks, even if I'm in business class. If there really isn't anything I want to eat (and I'm not particularly fussy) then I'm covered. Snacks are handy, too, when the flight is delayed on the tarmac or the dinner service is taking an unusually long time.
As infuriated as I sometimes am by the formulaic approach to food on many airlines (why oh why does breakfast always include a few chunks of inedible, under-ripe melon?) I recognise that there have been big culinary advances across all classes on those airlines that spend money on elevating their food offerings beyond the merely passable.
Collaborations with creative chefs like Neil Perry, who is Qantas' Creative Director of Food, Service and Beverage, break the mould of institutionalised food and introduce freshness, originality and some surprises for passengers along the way. I can't recall being offered anything as interesting as chicken schnitzel sandwiches, breakfast smoothies, or mid-meal treats of Maggie Beer ice-cream in 1987.
You are more likely to find vegetarian options on the main menu these days, not just something to be pre-ordered. And many airlines with a strong culinary heritage serve up local comfort food like won ton soups and sates in the back of the plane.
If you're in Business or First, on airline known for its food, the dining can be very "fine".
But if you're travelling any other way – bring those snacks.
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