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Onboard Chefs Offer World-Class In-Flight Dining Experiences

Oct 17, 2013
Magazine / Editorial

Thanks to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke — “What’s the deal with airline food?” — traditional airline meals have had 15 minutes of fame on the comedy stage. However, today airlines are earning nods in the other extreme, and they’re anything but funny. This spotlight involves award-winning in-flight meals, savory desserts, celebrity chefs and, best of all, pleased passengers.

Yet the curious ask: How do airlines pull off palatable in-flight meals in such tight quarters? How are these meals cooked to perfection? Do airline chefs actually cook on board?

With these questions in mind, we took a peek behind the galley curtains of three airlines to discover the various ways carriers accomplish such polished in-flight meals.

Qatar Airways’ dishes are tested extensively. © Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways’ dishes are tested extensively. © Qatar Airways

AKBAR AL BAKER, CEO of Qatar Airways, says, “Whether for business or pleasure, modern-day travelers want to arrive relaxed, refreshed and rejuvenated regardless of time zones or destinations. Yet as a truly global airline, we understand that beyond superior service, travelers also want to enjoy the journey of discovery, exploring new tastes and cuisines. That is why we’ve traveled the world to assemble a team of culinary experts to offer our passengers the very best dining experience available in the sky.”

It comes as no surprise that Al Baker’s sentiments shine through Qatar Airways’ onboard service. The overall goal is to provide passengers with a 5-star experience, which is accomplished by utilizing the highest-quality food and equipment and the right culinary authorities. In September 2012, Qatar Airways teamed with four award-winning, global chefs: Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Chef Ramzi Choueiri, Chef Vineet Bhatia and Chef Tom Aikens. The outcome was the new Qatar Airways Culinary World Menu, a rainbow of delectable international cuisine offerings. Qatar’s dishes are tested extensively in a simulated environment with altitude, pressure and heating times all taken into consideration as the recipes are honed to perfection. Only after thorough scrutiny do meals get included in the onboard menu.

The in-flight menu then lands in the hands of all business-class passengers departing from Doha (the carrier’s hub) and includes a three-course meal service featuring gourmet classics and regional dishes accompanied by fine wines, coffees and chocolates.

Since Qatar Airways’ celebrity chefs don’t tend the flights in person, what’s the secret to the appetizing meals? Cabin service planners, knowing time and space are obstacles for the cabin crew, combined the work of the talented chefs with special multiple-zone ovens. The ovens, installed in every aircraft, are equipped with multiple heating zones and a selection of humidity levels. Because the ovens heat at different temperatures and different times, allowing specialty foods to be cooked to perfection, meal quality is not sacrificed.

ANOTHER AIRLINE THAT has brought in the expertise of well-known chefs is American Airlines. “American has a rich history of working with celebrity chefs to design premium and main cabin menu items,” says Chris Isaac, director of inflight dining and retail, American Airlines. “In our international first-class and business-class cabins, we are proud to offer select entrées designed by Chef Richard Sandoval, Chef Cindy Hutson and Chef Maneet Chauhan. Our Hawaii first-class menus include meals designed by Chef Sam Choy. On domestic flights, customers in our main cabin can enjoy sandwiches and other items for purchase designed by Chef Marcus Samuelsson.”

Since it’s not always practical for chefs to work their magic in the air, American Airlines relies on the cabin crew to provide outstanding service alongside their celebrity-crafted meals. “The meals offered on board our aircraft are catered and then prepared by flight attendants during the meal service,” says Isaac. “We recently introduced enhancements to our international premium experience, including more variety and menu choices for our international first-class and business-class customers. Our premium customers now enjoy world-class dining options served on new modern china, with upgraded flatware and linens, and our signature build-your-own sundaes. International first-class customers are treated to a restaurant-style dining experience complete with an amuse bouche, a salad and soup course, a customizable entrée, the choice to participate in an in-flight wine tasting, and several dessert options.”

That’s not all. American Airlines has also taken a social approach to service by extending a bar-like ambience to passengers. “Our Boeing 777-300ER aircraft features a walk-up bar that is available exclusively to our premium-class customers. It is stocked with a selection of snacks, sandwiches and sweets, available anytime between meal services,” says Isaac. “In addition, first-class customers on our 777-300ER aircraft may enjoy an espresso or a cappuccino prepared in our first-class galley.” Now it’s the passengers who feel like celebrities.

A Turkish Airlines onboard meal © Turkish Airlines

A Turkish Airlines onboard meal © Turkish Airlines

NOT ALL TOP-RANKED onboard meals have a celebrity name attached, but the end results prove much consideration has been put into planning delectable in-flight dishes. Turkish Airlines has wisely invested time in selecting ideal in-flight meals, which has earned the airline kudos for the best in-flight food via a Skyscanner panel of international travelers. The key to Turkish Airlines’ success? Flying chefs.

Turkish Airlines goes the distance to offer personalized service. Dr. Ali Genc, senior vice president media relations, Turkish Airlines, explains, “Business-class passengers enjoy first-class, restaurant-quality cuisine prepared by one of Turkish Airlines’ ‘Flying Chefs’ on all long-haul flights. As the next step, we have already started sending some Flying Chefs on selected routes to short-haul destinations.”

“On board, two Flying Chefs work each North and South America flight. The first chef serves all of our passengers in the business-class cabin,” continues Genc. “The second chef serves our guests in the Comfort or Y class. Our aim is to control all the food processes from the beginning of the production to the service to our guests on board. The largest number of passengers are in the Y class. Even with a more simple service, we want to have our chefs there to control the correct reheating of our dishes and to get feedback from our passengers.”

Long before departure, meal planning is already in play along with the intention of ensuring pleased passengers. Genc explains the process that goes on behind the scenes: “The preparation of these meals starts at Turkish Do & Co’s Istanbul catering facilities, where more than 140,000 individual meals are prepared each day. What makes this service ever so impressive is the fact that much of this cooking is done by boutique production, and our Flying Chefs are working there as well. This makes sure that we have a direct link from the passenger feedback to our operations and chefs on the ground. To give our chefs the chance to create this restaurant experience in the air, we have a special loading process for our food. With a separate loading of the individual dishes and side dishes, we can do the final meal preparation on board so that when it is served, it looks and tastes just like a meal that you would receive in a gourmet restaurant. The long ground training and the individual special chef loading gives us the possibility to cook steaks, eggs and other meals according to passengers’ preferences.”

With chefs on board, the question regarding lack of elbow room in the galley arises. How do the chefs perform their cooking duties? “Despite being a small galley in the aircraft, the role for the chef has made a significant impact on the passenger’s dining experience,” says Genc. “For safety reasons, we cannot have an open flame, so we cannot grill or fry anything. There are a few hot air ovens on board. Despite this, our Flying Chefs are expertly trained on the correct usage of this equipment. The loading and the preparation of the food is arranged to give the chefs on board the chance to create the same type of cuisine and experience that a customer would expect from a 5-star restaurant. We aim to surprise our passengers with a delicious variety of foods, a unique way of serving and, of course, Turkish hospitality.”

As for how Turkish Airlines accomplishes an upscale ambience and meal execution, “Most of the Turkish Airlines Flying Chefs have extensive experience in top Turkish restaurants,” explains Genc, “To create the same experience like a customer would expect from a top restaurant, we offer extensive training. In an exact model of an aircraft galley we can provide a long training for the correct usage of the equipment and ovens so that our Flying Chefs understand the differences between the galley equipment and a regular kitchen, what the perfect way of finalizing the dishes is and what the correct way to serve them is. Serving is a very important part of this job, too, and we have to train the chefs accordingly. Our chefs are not only on board to cook, they are more like culinary ambassadors of Turkey. It is very important that the chefs are aware how important great food is and what a difference it can make in a passenger’s overall in-flight experience.”

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