Qantas' new Neil Perry first-class menus: Buttered up

Qantas has revamped its first class, Neil Perry-created meals, but do the pointy-end passengers want it?

If Qantas were paying retail prices for the butter it serves its First Class passengers the company would be outlaying about $9000 a week. The airline recently added Sydney artisan butter maker Pepe Saya to the list of suppliers that form part of chef Neil Perry's menus.  

Introducing the new butter at the pointy end of the plane was not as easy as you might think. It took six months of lobbying and manoeuvering, predominantly by Rockpool Consultant Roger Barstow, to get approval and establish the supply line. Currently Pepe Saya is supplying 9000 individually wrapped pats of cultured butter (which weigh 20 grams and retail for $1 in my local greengrocer) each week.

It's part of a push to offer premium customers the best Australian produce available, a focus of all Perry's restaurants and of his Qantas menus. Indeed the stated aim of the food and food service in Qantas First and Business is to reproduce a restaurant-quality experience 30,000 feet in the sky.

To that end, seven Rockpool staff members are "embedded" with Qantas Catering including three covering food on international routes, and three on service. The difference between Perry's Rockpool Group and Qantas and that of other chefs with their airline relationships, it seems, is very much an ability to say "we" rather than "they".

The menu changes seasonally, with a few surprise dishes thrown in now and then. Barstow does much of the recipe development in the first instance as well as staff training in simulators and in the air, but everything is signed off by Perry himself. Complete menus can take up to nine months to be created, approved, tested and introduced.

There's much talk about how the atmosphere inside a plane at 30,000 feet can affect the passenger's ability to taste food and that recipes needs to be adjusted accordingly. Barstow dismisses the claim: "We work on the basis that if it's good on the ground and it is made from top produce the food will taste good in the air."

Traveller was recently invited to taste dishes from the new spring menu which premium customers will be eating till December. Moreish appetisers of lobster and chervil tarlets and deep fried lamb kibbeh with cumin spiced yoghurt are followed by beef carpaccio with marinated mushrooms and parmesan, a stunning Glacier 51 Patagonian toothfish fillet with polenta, and a luscious caramel crème. Dish of the day is spaghetti with sweet, tender Fraser Island spanner crab and Pepe Saya truffle butter. By the time you read this, however, it will probably be unavailable thanks to the ephemeral nature of the Tasmanian truffles.  

In designing the dishes Barstow and his team focus not only on cost, portion size and how many customers might eat a certain dish – wasted food just uses up fuel and costs an airline money, he says - but also on the number of "movements" cabin crew need to do to get the dish plated correctly. There's such a limited space to work with that everything from how you toss a pasta dish to how many fish fillets you can fit on a tray and in the oven is examined in minute detail.   

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The number of dishes on the menu and the nature of the service depends on the flight route and duration. The full degustation available on long-haul routes such as Dubai and Los Angeles, takes about 2 ½ hours from start to finish.

The service aspect, under inimitable Rockpool Consultant Terry Higgins, is given as much importance as the food. Our tasting at the Qantas Centre for Service Excellence, in a nondescript brown brick building not far from Kingsford Smith airport, is sandwiched between Higgins' cabin crew training sessions and rigorous testing to ascertain how well they've absorbed her message.   

It's been an annus horribilis for Qantas given the dreadful full year results announced last month, and CEO Alan Joyce might be forgiven for spending time polishing his CV. However no one is questioning the tenure of Neil Perry whose Rockpool Group, which celebrates its 25th birthday at the end of this month, has run the food offerings for First and Business class passengers for the past 17 years.

"The food in premium classes is rarely the first reason people choose to fly with a certain airline," says Higgins, "but it's often the reason they choose to return." Which begs the question: do customers at the pointy end – who can clearly afford to drop $300 on a slap up meal at Rockpool anytime - really want all that fancy food, every time?

Anecdotally the answer appears to be "no". The most popular dish in Qantas First on any route is the simple steak sandwich. But that's not stopping Qantas pulling out the stops – and the artisan butter – in its efforts to lead the way in sky-high dining.

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