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Up in the Air

Feeding air travellers, whether in the sky or on the ground, brings its own set of special challenges. Four chefs take us behind the scenes.    

Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin

For most of us, air travel means meals that are far from glamorous with bland trays of food and plastic utensils. But it’s not always this way. Four chefs talk about the challenges of producing airline and airport meals.     

Turkish Airlines is one of few airlines in the world with in-flight chefs. Among the 900 plus “flying chefs” on its short- and long-haul flights are Fatih Berber and Serkan Kasaroğlu, who help the airline produce up to 220,000 meals a day. The meals are 70 per cent prepared on the ground in Europe’s largest fresh-cooking kitchen, then finished off on the plane.

Swiss-born Florian Trento, group executive chef at The Peninsula Hong Kong, has been planning SWISS airline’s first- and business-class in-flight menus since 2009. His Swiss-oriented menu of refined classics changes every three months, but currently feature lobster medallion with tomato jelly and salsa, and beef fillet with mashed potatoes and vegetable dauphinoise.

Ricky Tam is group executive chef of Plaza Premium Group (PPG), overseeing F&B services and kitchens at the world’s largest independent airport lounge network, with 130 locations across 35 international airports. In fact, he’s the man we have to thank for the delicious fish ball noodles in Hong Kong’s Plaza Premium Lounge.   

All four point out that airline menus are very different to those served in five-star hotels.

“The food goes from the fridge to oven to passenger,” Trento says. “In business class, they don’t do anything with it on the plane, or they might pour sauce over the dish, but it’s something that can be done by a complete amateur. Certain things may not work and we need to make something that travels well and is easy to reheat. For first class, we can be a bit more adventurous, but there are still complications. I’ll use a blender in the hotel to make a sauce, but on the plane, they don’t have that, so these are little things we take for granted.”

The lack of control is an uncertainty in the cooking process, Trento says.

“The food we design is always very tasty, but there are two factors we don’t have control over: caterer and crew. The food is made 24 hours in advance and chilled for food safety. But at the end of the day, we have to taste it on the ground and that’s how we hope it is served. We don’t have a simulated test in pressure chambers so there’s no conclusion on how it holds up and is presented. Most of the time it works out.”

With professional chefs on board, the lack of control is less of an issue on Turkish Airlines.

“We are not serving just a casserole on a tray,” Kasaroglu says. “We have a very individual service, which is much more like a restaurant. We have a starter trolley, where guests can choose from eight different mezzes, and then main course and dessert options as well. But we can do anything, because we have the ingredients and chefs on the plane. One time, I had a passenger who specifically requested swordfish, and she wouldn’t eat anything else. I only had sea bass, sea bream and salmon. I ended up making a special sea bream dish just for her. She was very happy with it.”

Berber remembers making an off-menu kebab for a guest with a craving “He was so surprised. ‘How did you do that?’ he asked. ‘What else can you do?’ After knowing that we can personalise these meals, passengers try to challenge the chefs all the time. But we can do anything.”    

Having a stocked kitchen also comes with its own set of challenges, Kasaroğlu says.

“We have to race with time in such small galley. We have to work very clean – nothing is allowed to lie around on the counter. We’re trained to pack everything up in less than two minutes. And when necessary, we replace all glasses with plastic cups very quickly.”

On the ground, PPG’s restaurant and lounge kitchens are located in the restricted area of the airports working within security regulations and space limitations that make it logistically challenging, Tam says.

“Open-flame grills, stoves and toasters are potential fire hazards and not allowed in some of our lounge kitchens. When we designed the kitchen set-up and the menus, we needed to apply alternative kitchenware and cooking methods (such as baking or slow-cooking),” he says. “[Kitchens in] most airport passenger terminals, especially in restricted and transit areas, are very limited, unlike flight kitchens which have a relatively generous working area. Logistics in airport-restricted areas are inconvenient, especially when security clearance is involved in our operations. Therefore, we need to pay extra effort in maximising our inventory control and freshness of produce.”

As well as navigating the limitations, deciding the menu is an essential part of the process. Tam includes local dishes, such as Hong Kong’s fish ball noodles and Singapore’s Hainan chicken rice, as well as healthy options at PPG’s The Green Market and Flight Club in select airports.

“With the prevalence of airport lounges like Plaza Premium Lounge and restaurants, and the limitations of in-flight catering, many travellers prefer to eat before boarding,” Tam says. “They don’t mind paying more for a healthier diet on the move. As most of our guests board a plane immediately after eating, I will select produce that is easy to digest and try not to promote ingredients that cause strong, unpleasant odours or flatulence, such as fresh Chinese chives or potatoes.”

Trento tends to avoid controversial ingredients and rich foods when designing his in-flight menu. “They give me a list of items we should not use. For example, stay away from alcoholic sauces, goose liver, anything that is not sustainable or controversial, foods that wilt like cabbage.”

As for eating his own food on a flight, Trento is satisfied.

“I had the opportunity to fly first class on SWISS once and it was a good experience,” he says. “I’m my own biggest critic. I was the only one eating in first class. One of the passengers across the aisle approached me afterwards, said: ‘Hey, you’re the guy on the menu. I said, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ He says, ‘I’m terribly sorry I haven’t eaten anything.’”

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