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Sky high catering; when you can have your cake and eat it
How has in-air catering evolved over the years, and how do you serve high quality meals to both short and long haul passengers on small or large aircraft? It seems that the catering sector of the industry has successfully managed to accommodate the ever-changing demands of its affluent clients in terms of choice, quality and timeliness.
Read this story in our October 2017 printed issue.

How has in-air catering evolved over the years, and how do you serve high quality meals to both short and long haul passengers on small or large aircraft? It seems that the catering sector of the industry has successfully managed to accommodate the ever-changing demands of its affluent clients in terms of choice, quality and timeliness.

Larger jets like BBJs tend to have a lot of specialist kitchen appliances and equipment. Jet Exchange head of cabin services Jane Roberts recalls seeing one with a full kitchen in the back galley, including hot plate, induction rings and a pizza oven. But generally speaking she feels there's really no need for ostentatious gadgets. All a good galley needs is a place to keep food and drinks cool; a facility to make good coffee; some worktop space where the plating can be done and some practical placement of the storage areas and drawers.

Luxaviation ensures that its cabin crew can replicate levels of service expected in a high-end restaurant at 40,000 feet. If a flight is only one hour long but the passengers want a two-course meal, the crew will give them what they ask for. If they want Lebanese food in the US, it will be sourced from the nearest high quality Lebanese restaurant. “We strive to actualise every client request, whether that's delivering Godiva hot chocolate from Harrods or a burger and fries from McDonalds,” says MD George Galanopoulos. “If it's possible, we will get it done.”

Qatar Executive has both an in-house catering team and a wide range of suppliers. It collaborates with top hotels, high-end restaurants and VIP catering units, and sources produce from local boutique markets around the world. Crew are trained in-house at Doha in Qatar. Performance manager Thalita Souza says: “The in-flight team has years of experience and takes enormous care with food preparation so that cabin crew can serve dishes without the need of an onboard chef, even to 517 passengers on the superjumbo Airbus A380s.”

Meals for airline catering are reheated and consumed many hours after preparation, so catering provider Gate Gourmet blast chills the food after cooking so that it can be kept chilled for some time afterwards. Its most popular dishes are Wagyu steak and a range of Arabic dishes. The team is led by two members of international association of gastronomy Chaîne des Rotisseurs, executive chef Thomas Harker, who used to prepare the menus for British royal flights, and oficier Joao Aguiar.

The art of plating up

Switzerland-based DeliSky provides catering worldwide for 65 private jet companies operating aircraft from small up to large Boeing and Airbus types. Dedicated software enables operators to create and send through catering orders with clear delivery and packaging instructions, and DeliSky to specify the cooking and serving procedures. “A clear and standardised information flow is crucial for us,” says managing director Sascha Gassmann. “We employ a reliable and efficient system and operators can make specific requests from our well orgainsed menus. There is a lot of choice.”

“We audit and evaluate all of our suppliers to ensure that they meet our highest standards,” he adds. The most important factors are quality and food safety. Private jet owners expect high end restaurant catering, and so the challenge faced by caterers hinges on security procedures in certain countries limiting the choice of supplier to certain airside commercial caterers.

From a food safety and hygiene point of view this is good, but the quality of airline-focused catering providers doesn't always match up to that of the top notch restaurants. So what DeliSky can deliver will depend on the location. “Sometimes in Africa, for example, we can't guarantee the correct cooling chain as food is transported, so we have to strike a balance to achieve safety and quality, and safety has to be the top priority,” Gassmann adds.

For the most part Switzerland-based operator Global Jet Concept organises inflight food itself. There won't be a dedicated catering professional on board but the attendants are trained by a Michelin-starred chef in Geneva. They are taught how to search for the best quality foodstuffs from restaurants and markets and how to cut, prepare, cook, plate and design the meals. “It's quite an art,” says VP marketing and inflight quality Abner Tato.

On Air Dining receives a lot of requests for fish dishes, indeed one of its biggest sellers is sushi for which it works with two Michelin-starred restaurants, including Nobu. Other popular dishes are tuna niçoise and miso cod. “We once had a request for chocolate covered crickets,” says managing director Daniel Hulme. “We had to source the crickets, cook them in the oven and then dip them in chocolate. They are very good for you apparently.

“We look closely at the molecular structure of the food and how it changes during the flying and cooking process,” he adds. The cooking method is sous-vide, where the meat or fish goes into a bag and is submerged in water. During this process food is heated to the point at which the protein cells are cooked when it is taken out of the water. For a piece of fish it is between 54 and 62 centigrade. The protein cells will be cooked and it will look translucent, but it can then be caramelised in a pan to achieve a cooked look. Initially it will be medium rare all the way through so flight attendants will be warming it, not cooking it.

A Portuguese menu

Executive chef Miguel Baptista started working at Portuguese specialist inflight catering company LSky eight years ago, covering Lisbon International airport and Cascais aerodrome. In that time the menu has undergone several changes, sometimes every six months, and what was originally simple yet elaborate has been enhanced to meet the more extravagant needs and demands of clients.

He is now in the process of completing the 2017/2018 menu which uses more cooking techniques and a greater variety of top quality products. It features cold entrées such as lobster medallions over white asparagus with zucchini puree and basil; langoustine tartare with citrus, caviar and chicory lettuce; soups such as pea cream with smoked cod; a vast range of salads and sandwiches; seafood dishes such as clams and shrimp Xerém, popular in southern Portugal; truffle risotto with scarlet shrimp and coriander micro leaves; John Dory with glazed endive and grapes, capers and a pine nut sauce; all followed by top desserts and petit fours.

Roasting beef at 42,000 feet

Galley Cuisine is a Belgium and Netherlands-based VIP catering provider and around 80 per cent of its Brussels business is related to the European Union; government flights, presidential flights and so on. In Amsterdam it is a different story, it does more private flight catering. “There are a lot of business jets coming to Holland because billionaires are buying mega yachts here,” says André Seijbel, a former flying chef on board a Global Express. He is used to preparing fillet of beef from scratch, which takes 45 minutes to roast in the oven, but is aware that some clients expect it to go in the microwave and be ready 15 seconds later.

Menus are organised from headquarters in Amsterdam but the kitchens are in both Holland and Belgium. Expectations are high: the top earners in the world are very specific with their demands and the majority prefer not to order off a menu. The company therefore creates many dishes on demand and problems arise only from availability, perhaps when a client wants a specific brand of coconut water, some kind of soda not available outside of South Africa or a specific type of chocolate from the Middle East.

Vegetables arrive fresh into Dutch ports from all over the world. A lot of stock goes via the harbour of Rotterdam or as cargo to Schiphol, and Galley Cuisine is very close by. Thus it is able to make use of the tastiest international ingredients.

The latest trend is for people wanting things they have seen on Instagram or on TV cookery shows. But whatever works on television isn't always so good on a private jet. A soufflé from Gordon Ramsay might look fantastic, but can it be prepared in the confines of the cabin? “And yes,” adds Seijbel, “we did the catering for Gordon Ramsay and he was very pleased with the quality of the food he got onboard.”

Michelin-starred restaurant food will have been developed over 20 to 50 test sessions and may prove too complicated to copy in one session without a recipe. “The client might tell you about an amazing langoustine soup they had in Lisbon and they might want 40 ml of it as an amuse-bouche starter. I cannot make 40 ml of soup; we have to make a few litres,” he explains.

From fois gras to salad

Roberts finds that people have become much more aware about food, its effects on health and well-being, and its sustainability. The trend seems to have moved away from platters of fois gras and caviar and people are now more interested in organic and fresh ingredients that have a positive effect on health. People are looking for relatively simple and unadulterated produce prepared in creative ways.

German operator MHS Aviation's light and midsize jets are operated without a flight attendant but someone would be on board its Challenger 300 flights. Attendants are responsible for all aspects of the catering including stock, the open bar and the food, and the company's operations team works with different providers and online suppliers to meet requirements.

“When people think about catering they tend to only think about the food, but on every aircraft you have a certain stock of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, snacks, teas and coffees,” says director of business aviation Christian Haase. On the bigger jets there may be an espresso machine or coffee maker on board, and after each flight the crew checks whether they are low on stock so they can go shopping if there is a supermarket close to the airport, or order more through a handling or catering agent.

The business aviation industry, as with all industries, is getting used to the growing immediacy of demand. While Haase uses small caterers sometimes he will also use a big group like Air Culinaire which has destinations worldwide. These companies have become accustomed to the wide variety of passenger demands from standard menus and ready-to-serve trays on light jets right up to a multi-course meal with silver service. Haase says caterers have adapted to the needs of operators and their customers, and service is very professional: “Ten or 15 years ago, if you had asked for catering at three hours notice it would never have happened, unless you bought sandwiches at the gas station. Nowadays you will get it.”

Food safety

LSky staff are divided into two groups for separate cold and hot preparations. There is a specific technical file for all menu items so that each is always made and plated the same way. Staff follow government food safety rules and when it is ready and plated up it goes to the fridge, before being put into special containers and delivered in refrigerated cars.

German operator FAI rent-a-jet uses catering companies for all its charter flights but will use selected supermarket or luxury store-bought products if the passengers have such a preference. The company likes to be able to offer something new and creative so its menu changes regularly to include new and inno-vative products, packaging, service and food presentation suggestions.

FAI crew tend to come from a reputed commercial airline and have first-class experience. Thus they already know the basics of service and guest management but the finer techniques can be taught on the job. When new crew start flying they undergo a few training flights with another crew member to show them the ropes, after which the head of cabin will do a check flight to make sure they are up to standard.

The Jet Exchange crew take an active interest in food presentation in their everyday lives. Their passion for service doesn't start and finish on board, they will have attended numerous courses in their own time and like to keep themselves current. New staff receive in-house training and are sent on external training courses as required.

The secret of an effective galley

For perfect service, and business aviation clients expect nothing less, LSky encourages good cooperation and communication between all kitchen staff, good stock, efficient scheduling times and, most importantly, motivated staff.

A galley doesn't necessarily have to be big, but a host needs to plan the perfect layout to make the environment work for everyone on board. Milou Martens has been a hostess with Belgium and Netherlands operator ASL/JetNetherlands on its long range jets for the past three and a half months. She is based at Eindhoven in the Netherlands where she works closely with the Van Eeghem catering company.

Martens says: “Even if the flight is a short hop on a small jet, if a customer wants canapes, caviar, sushi and champagne we have to make that work.” She recently had a flight with four children on board. Children tend to like different drinks and snacks to the adults so she went to a shop and bought sweets and chocolate for them. “They loved it, and of course a happy child makes for happy parents too.”

Preparation is a very important part of catering. When food arrives in plastic boxes just before departure, she must decide how to make it look attractive and how best to serve it.

FAI head of cabin Nelia Miller says: “Everything in the galley has to have its own place, and crew members must be able to stand in the galley with their eyes shut and still touch everything and know exactly where it all is.” A dirty galley is a bad galley, and she keeps all areas disinfected and cleaned to pristine standards at all times.

In a small aircraft there is little space so greater organisational skills are required. But she advises caution when supplying provisions in a large jet. There may be more space, but that doesn't automatically mean crew need more things. She recommends having a standard loading list, with no unnecessary items on board that just clutter a galley, cabin and cargo compartment.

Hygiene is very important and Tato says that different knives must be used to cut fish, meat and vegetables. Aircraft galleys are very small and it can be quite easy to contaminate food so it is important to work with gloves on.

Food tastes different in the air

Altitude and air pressure do not change the flavour of food, rather they change the way passengers taste. In order to compensate for this LSky adjusts the amount of salt and seasoning in its dishes and limits the temperature at which food stuffs are kept in order not to dry them out after reheating in the aircraft.

Jet Exchange's Roberts may organise the catering for a continental breakfast on board so as to serve freshly baked croissants and hand pick a selection of charcuterie, yogurts and seasonal fruits. At other times she will use VIP caterers who generally understand corporate aircraft galley space limitations and who will provide a full three-course meal service to a full load of guests in a way that is easy to store, prepare and serve efficiently.

Cooking at altitude is very different to cooking on the ground and Jet Exchange flight attendants are trained in food safety and presentation techniques. Cabin pressure and low humidity can manipulate the tastebuds so that even food cooked by the best chef on the ground can be lacking in flavour and umami when eaten at altitude.

Salt is the sensory taste most affected when flying, so On Air Dining looks to increase the salt flavour without increasing the sodium content, as sodium lessens the pleasant taste. He recommends using pink Himalayan salt on board as it has less sodium yet has sufficient mineral content within the salt to enhance the flavour of the food. It can also be kept in a lump and grated.

Ingredients that cut through the impact on taste that flying has are shitake mushrooms, ginger and peanut, and the company also looks to create dishes that smell great as they drift through the aircraft. Flight attendants are encouraged not to present dishes in a symmetrical fashion, like the spokes of a bicycle. “Dishes should draw the eye in a lot of different directions, like a work of art from Gaudi,” says Hulme. “A dish should offer different lines, shapes, colours and textures, but at the same time the food should be in the centre of the plate to focus the attention. The food should be exciting and break up the journey. It is a highlight of aircraft travel.” Flashcards with photos and step-by-step instructions show crew how the dish should look.

Catering an A340-500 on a 24-hour ground stop was particularly challenging for Air Culinaire operations director Neil Hayes. He and his regional operations manager met the crew on arrival, took the order and then worked through the night with the kitchen team for a next day delivery. “How did we handle it?” he asks. “Two words, teamwork and coffee.”

Air Culinaire's authentic Chinese menu has been very popular since it was launched late last year following development with a specialised supplier, showcasing authentic Sichuan, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong cuisine.

Regional considerations

LSky uses foreign products but gives priority to national foodstuffs such as fresh vegetables and fruit. Fish and seafood come from the Portuguese coast and its most popular dishes are Portuguese lamb stew, codfish cooked lagareiro style in olive oil and octopus, perhaps in a salad.

Light and healthy food is still popular but Seijbel believes that the trend for gluten-free food is on the wane. The main catering difference he sees between the various regions of the world is in the quantity of food ordered. If there are three Americans on the aircraft one might want a salad, four sandwiches and a cup of soup; one might want one salad and a cup of soup and a dessert; and the third a big sandwich and a hamburger.

The Russians, on the other hand, tend to order everything from the menu because at home they are used to filling the table with food. “They like a lot of everything,” he says, “and the same applies to Africans. Middle Eastern clients tend to order a lot of juices, hot snacks, mini pizzas, mini hamburgers and mini kebabs while most Europeans are into salads and fish.”

As a general rule, Roberts finds it advisable to offer the local cuisine of the departure region as the caterers are more likely to do that best. She too notes that portion sizes can vary hugely from place to place, so adding specific quantities to an order really helps. “In the USA for example I tend to find portion sizes are larger than we're accustomed to receiving in Europe,” she says. She mentions geographic considerations too: “I'd avoid ordering seafood items if we are hours away from the coast.”

It is becoming more common for passengers to order fast food for the flight. Sometimes they want to cast aside the stuffy vestiges of luxury travel and may even request a McDonalds. But Roberts says: “Of course their selection of Big Macs and nuggets will still be served to them on a silver platter.”

Around 80 per cent of Denmark-based Global Reach flights go out of anywhere except Denmark according to cabin chief Sanne Sofie Nielsen. “Most of the time we don't fly out of Scandinavia, so only a small part of our catering is from Denmark,” she says. Any locally-sourced catering comes from a restaurant in Billund, to the delight of some Danish passengers who were regulars at the restaurant. The bread comes from local bakeries too, and while no one yet has requested snacks with a company logo on them, if they did she would certainly arrange it.

“If you are charging a reasonable amount for food, whether it's in a restaurant or on an aircraft, being able to provide provenance and authority is important,” says Gama Aviation global chief marketing office Duncan Daines. “People want to know where the food is reared.”

Passengers can be quite demanding and one, who hadn't flown privately before, requested a certain type of cake that Gama Aviation did not have and was not part of the manifest. The company explained that it could be sourced but only by landing the aircraft en route and having someone go to pick it up, making it the most expensive cake they would ever have eaten. It didn't happen.

Hilton Munich Airport catering primarily looks after the private planes at Munich airport, which tend to be small aircraft with a team of 12 people including kitchen and service. It works with companies like NetJets, and quite a lot of customers order directly online if they have a password to log in to the menus.

Based in Bavaria, staff often get asked for Wiener schnitzel and local delicacies, but it also provides international food such as sushi, kosher and halal dishes, courtesy of two or three local suppliers.

Food needs to have some resiliance; general manager Dagmar Mühle explains: “Thicker cut meat is more robust, we avoid items that fall apart easily.” Meat and fish are kept quite rare so that it just needs to be reheated, not cooked. “And we avoid fresh whipped cream which gains volume and loses consistency in the air.”

Top tips FAI's Miller suggests that having well designed bags, atlas boxes and storage containers that use the least amount of space is effective. Storage compartments should be well organised and everything should be kept in its place at all times. Crew members should be well prepared and well informed as each flight is so different that service will be individually tailor-made for each trip.

Generally, ordering items to be packaged in bulk helps to save space as several portions will be packed into one container rather than individual portions. Caterers are familiar with onboard oven sizes or storage space and will use packaging more suitable for the different types of jet.

LSky puts forward its favourite high altitude menu of the moment: Rich seafood and fish cream flavoured with fennel and saffron; duck foie gras with apple confit and a red fruit coulis; cod, pea and mint risotto with red pepper sauce and a crispy bacon chip; followed by a passion fruit and coconut bavarois. Using ingredients such as strawberries, grapes, ginger and herbs refreshes the sense of taste for passengers in the clouds.

Correction

Helicopter Film Services is based at Denham aerodrome, not Elstree aerodrome as stated in the feature on aerial photography last month.

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