Imagine that Dubai International Airport is a city – a huge city, with a population roughly the size of New York and Mumbai combined. After all, more than 28 million passengers travel through the airport each year. And as the airlines try to tap into the astounding number of potential customers, many are attempting to appeal to passengers’ appetites.
One notable example of this is Emirates, which has just recruited Spanish celebrity chef Santi Santamaria (above right) – the name behind the highly regarded Ossiano restaurant at Atlantis – to design the menus for its newly launched direct flights to Madrid. Etihad, meanwhile, has started employing food and beverage managers with hospitality backgrounds to sit in on all long-haul flights and ensure the presentation of the food is flawless.
These may seem like new initiatives, but in fact many airlines have long been using food to entice customers. George Banks, a food product manager at Emirates Airlines and the author of Gourmet & Glamour, a book about his years in the airline catering industry, explains. ‘It’s not a new philosophy as such; you’ll see airlines dip in and dip out. It used to be done more in the ’60s and ’70s. Some airlines even used to have their stewards dressed up in chefs’ whites. But in terms of using celebrity chefs [such as Santamaria], you don’t see it done as much now as you used to.’
Of course, cooking for restaurant customers is not the same as cooking for airline passengers. For starters, the numbers are vastly different: Banks estimates Emirates serves an average of 60,000 meals per day (75,000 in the peak season). And that’s not the only challenge. ‘In my kitchen, the food is cooked and served instantly,’ says Santamaria. ‘To make the food for the plane, you need to plan ahead. You need to think about food that’s going to be on the flight for hours and will be supplied to guests at different times in different ways.’
One of the reasons in-flight food gets a bad rap is because of the limitations of preparing meals in the air. It’s a delicate process, and while there are ovens in the plane (nothing is microwaved), food still has to be reheated as opposed to cooked from scratch. According to Werner Kimmeringer, the head of catering for Etihad, this means fried food, and items that don’t reheat well, such as calamari, are pretty much ruled out.
Another challenge is taste and flavour. ‘Flying at an altitude of up to 35,000ft affects people’s taste buds, which are about 30 per cent less sensitive than on the ground,’ explains Kimmeringer. To counter passengers’ dulled palates, his team tends to use more seasoning.
Banks, meanwhile, says the biggest challenge of in-flight catering is the customer base. ‘The cross-section of customers is huge. Emirates is a global airline and we have to recognise the passenger profile on every route. Because we’re in the centre of the world, we have to have a huge diversity of dishes. We’re catering for Arabs, South Asians, Australians and Europeans, and also have to take in special meal requests. Naturally we don’t have the space to stock 100 per cent of every choice available. We have to come up with a menu that will appeal to everybody and still stock just enough so everyone can have their choice.’
Given the limited space in which to prepare and serve the meals, it’s miraculous what chefs and airline staff have managed to achieve with their catering. It’s certainly something to think about the next time you grumble over your in-flight meal.