VIEWS: 3 PAGES: 5 POSTED ON: 10/3/2012
Flying High The sky's the limit when it comes to preparing meals for airline passengers, unless you are in economy class. Head chef Janell Millington is putting the finishing touches to a plate of baby barramundi served with saffron rice and blanched snow peas. She has worked in some of Australia's leading hotels - including Broome's Cable Beach Club and Sydney's InterContinental - and the dish she's serving now could easily grace a table at any smart restaurant around town. Behind her, a team of kitchen staff is busily preparing sumptuous sauces and salads, appetisers and entrees. And yet the food Millington is garnishing is perhaps the most maligned form of cuisine in the world. Millington is one of Gulf Air's new Sky Chefs - 100 restaurant-trained experts from 23 nations who do their cooking 9000 metres in the air, catering for the whims of Gulf's first-class passengers. Millington and her fellow Sky Chefs are the most dramatic sign that airline food is undergoing a revolution. To some, the future looks exciting - a world where we'll be able to order nutritious meals of our choice online a few hours before take-off. Put simply, the world's leading airlines are splitting into three groups. At the top end, Gulf and Emirates are sparing no expense, pitching themselves as exclusive restaurants-in-the-sky with on-board chefs to seduce those businessmen and women whose companies pick up the tab. At the bottom, low-cost domestic carriers have cut out hot meals altogether for short flights. Some, such as Virgin Blue, sell a basic range of cold snacks on board and allow customers to order "gourmet" wraps, fajitas, salads and focaccias from an online menu up to 12 hours in advance. And in the middle? The majority of international airlines, including Qantas, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai and Swiss, are desperately seeking ways to keep the cost of economy meals under control while upgrading their business and first-class cabin service with menus designed by "signature chefs" such as Neil Perry, of Rockpool, who has worked with Qantas since 1997. Behind the scenes Millington has invited me to a massive, high-tech food processing centre in Mascot, a cathedral of stainless steel and cold stores - the Sydney headquarters of Caterair, one of the three big airline catering companies which ring the airport. Caterair supplies meals to Thai, Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines and Air Canada, as well as Gulf. Most airline passengers don't realise the food served by competing airlines is often prepared in the same kitchens. As Millington walks me through Caterair's enormous open-plan kitchens, we watch an army of white-coated, hair-netted workers assembling meals for competing airlines. Each one has a coloured photo of what their particular finished meal should look like, issued by the airline's chefs at head office. That's why Millington is in Sydney today. Her primary job is to cook individual in-flight meals for the 10 passengers in Gulf Air's first class. But menus in business and economy change every few months, so a Sky Chef is despatched to show the on-ground caterers exactly how the meals should be when they're served on the plane. We head to the segregated halal enclosure, a self-contained commercial kitchen where the food for Gulf Air and Malaysia Airlines is prepared according to Islamic dietary requirements. "We like to work with the caterer's chefs for two or three days, show them exactly what we want," says Millington. In some ways the increasing luxury at the top end of the airline industry is a return to the early days of the jet set age. Look back at evocative photographs of planes in the 1940s and you'll see the service standard revived and updated in business class today. Fine tablecloths. Good quality glassware and cutlery. Extensive wine lists. Individual plating. Back then only the wealthy could afford to fly. As the cost of air travel plummeted, something had to give. Economy passengers got used to plastic trays and cutlery, unimaginative menus, nondescript wines, tasteless dishes. First, "Your palate changes at 30,000 feet [9000 metres]. Things don't taste the same as they do on the ground." So the blandness people associate with airline food has, often, more to do with their own reduced sense of taste than the food itself. Second, economy food is usually served in plastic containers with disposable cutlery to reduce weight, fuel costs and air fares. Try eating food at your favourite restaurant from a plastic tray and see if it tastes the same. Third, airline food has to appeal to the majority. Though you might like your food highly spiced, many passengers won't. Most Western airlines avoid using garlic in their food, for example, because the cumulative effect in the cabin of 200 people would be off-putting, to say the least. Asian airlines, however, have fewer problems serving spicy food because pungent aromas are more culturally acceptable. Keep it clean The big issue is hygiene. As Khair says: "You are far more likely to get sick in a five-star restaurant than you are on a plane. Airline food is one of the safest forms of food there is. And when people complain about being sick, it's usually because of something they ate on the ground." Certain ingredients are automatically ruled out: oysters and any raw fish or meat (it has to be seared before it is allowed on board). Gate Gourmet never uses raw bean sprouts, because they're considered high-risk. Or peanuts or peanut oil because so many passengers are allergic to them. Traditionally the answer to this logistical nightmare has been a process called cook-chill. Meals are cooked on the ground a few hours before a plane's departure, assembled in plastic or foil dishes, refrigerated for a minimum of three hours at five degrees, loaded onto the planes, then put into convection ovens by the cabin crew and served. However, two things have changed recently. Aircraft ovens have improved with computerisation and more airlines are switching to the new generation of quick-frozen meals for their economy cabins. A QANTAS representative said “now across our fleet we're introducing steamer oven technology which allows food to be cooked under dry heat or wet heat. It makes sure certain food retains moisture and doesn't dry out like it did in the past." For those at the front of the plane, consultant chefs such as Neil Perry have helped develop menus that are interesting, practical and nutritious. "Neil is involved from paddock to plate," she says. Perry and his team talk to produce growers not just in Australia but all Qantas ports. They design the first- and business-class menus, train the airline caterer's chefs and work with cabin crews to improve cooking procedures and galley management. Fresh future Under Perry's guidance, fewer meals in first and business are cooked on the ground, with cabin crew "now cooking the majority of meals from a fresh base which we believe delivers a much better result than reheating food". Vegetables are steamed fresh on board while fish is grilled. The food is no longer pre-plated by the on-ground caterers but plated in the galley, restaurant-style. Unlike Gulf, Qantas doesn't employ in-flight chefs but, Hudson says, "we believe our cabin crew are competent and confident". So, what can we expect in the future? The premium flyers are the corporate passengers. They're the ones paying for the plane to fly. So in economy we're going to see even more frozen meals, more disposable settings. "In business class, it will be exactly the reverse. Airlines are spending a lot of money combining their business and first class. Putting in more beds. Good quality cutlery. Restaurant-style plates." Flights of fancy Ever wondered about the sheer volume of food which has to be loaded onto departing planes? According to Qantas and Caterair, they produce 770,000 meals each year. Qantas estimates that in a typical week it serves: Wine 16,950 litres Beer 9500 litres Bottled water 86,150 litres Soft drinks 171,250 litres Ice-cream 13,050 kg Coffee 2640 kg Meat 14,000 kg Chicken 19,600 kg Eggs 30,700 Vegetables 46,150 kg Salad leaves 3860 kg Fruit 25,200 kg Cheese 5700 kg How much is this per year?
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