- Much of premium class airline food is hand-prepared
- Gate Gourmet one of three airline catering facilities next to Hong Kong airport
- Company produces around 15,000 meals each day
Long gone are the days of ice sculptures and crepe suzette served up as a matter of course in first class cabins on airliners.
But what is presented to premium passengers can still rival some top hotels or restaurants, and can often act as a good barometer for the health of an airline's fortunes.
"When times get tough, food is one of the costs airlines can cut without jeopardizing safety," says Andreas Weber, general manager of airline catering company, Gate Gourmet.
"It has changed back and forth (over time); airlines go through crises," he says. "(Today) more airlines are investing substantially in their first and business class products. Making people comfortable in big seats, everyone is doing that already, but what is left is the catering experience."
Responsible for getting 15,000 meals a day onto planes departing Hong Kong International Airport, Gate Gourmet is well versed in meeting the demands of both airlines and passengers. It is one of three catering companies operating at the airport.
Erich Seifert, head of production at the facility that employs over 300 people, is often faced with demands for a particular meal for a first class customer at short notice.
"The customer is always right, we have to make it," he says, noting that special requests from airlines can come less than a couple of hours before a flight's departure.
Being able to react to last-minute requests for wagyu beef or whatever form the fancy of a passenger takes is down to a strict process -- from taking delivery of fresh ingredients in the morning to rolling out the meals on trolleys, all plated up on trays ready to be served on an evening flight.
"We're not like a lab yet," says Seifert of the kitchens that look much like any large-scale catering facility. "We have lots of standards and procedures; we can trace every product, everything is recorded, what is cooked, when and how."
That is to ensure that should anything go amiss or the food is not satisfactory Seifert can tell where in the process it might have happened.
But if the whims of premium passengers must be indulged as one-offs, general safety and hygiene are constant with the 24-hour operation.
"It's essential for us the food is safe, this is our first priority. The first thing our people learn is the rule to wash hands, change clothes, cover hair, no jewelry and recording of all items," says Seifert.
Gate Gourmet's facility at the edge of the airport could almost be a drive-thru for planes, it's just a few hundred yards from the southern runway.
With the roar of jet engines in the background, dedicated chefs in the Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese sections of the kitchens oversee the production of different meals for 17 international airlines.
The "blast chillers" are one exceptional piece of kitchen kit not usually found in regular restaurant kitchens. They are used to quickly bring the temperature down from cooking temperature to around 4 degrees Celsius; the required temperature food must be when delivered to planes.
Much of the first and business class cuisine, from scallop dumplings to macaron desserts, are hand-made and prepared directly to an airline's specifications. Many of these carriers have a celebrity chef behind the creation of the menu.
"Usually the higher-end airlines send their own menus, or others will ask us to for the whole thing to develop it for them," says Siefert.
"Most of them will make proposals; our proposals will combine with theirs, and they give us roughly a vision of their food and they will come to our facility. It can be a very stressful day actually... you have to change this and you have to take all the weights and record it all down to make sure it is exactly like this."
Those plating up the meals have pictorial guides, so when the food is served or the foil lid removed, passengers don't lose their appetite with sloppy presentation. "That's what the customer wants and that's what the customer insists," says Siefert.
For those who don't have the luxury of sitting at the front of the plane, the hardy perennials of airline food -- beef, chicken and fish -- will continue to be the mainstay of dining in the sky.
"Most of the flying public they are not adventurous ; you won't be finding braised rabbit or pigeon on an aircraft," says Weber. "But we work with a lot of international customers so there's a high expectation, especially as Hong Kong is a culinary hub. Even if you go for a dai pai dong, here the food is good."