JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3
Imagine: Airline Food You Can Actually Eat
By ARYN BAKER
for TIME by Mariko Jesse.
were such a thing as an airline chef's cookbook, it would read something
like this: take a succulent filet mignon, sear to perfection, then shove
into the refrigerator. Chill to 4C, reheat and garnish with wilted snow
peas. As a side, toss an iceberg lettuce salad with a chlorine vinaigrette.
Serve with winefamous vintner, dubious vintagein tiny plastic
Ever wonder why airline food tastes like undifferentiated mush? Well,
consider how it's prepared. First, there is the matter of quantity: when
cooking 50,000 meals a dayas Cathay Pacific's catering facility
does in Hong Kongairline chefs are unlikely to have much time or
enthusiasm for such niceties as taste and creativity. And since they are
dealing with thousands of palates, each with its own specific tastes,
it's probably safest to make mush for everyone. Then think of all the
problems of storage, refrigeration and reheating in the tight confines
of an airplane kitchen. It's enough to make you sympathize with the cabin
crew who have to serve this stuff and endure nasty looks (or worse) from
for the good news: the choice between light or dark mystery meat in sauce
may soon go the way of the propeller plane. Many airlines are working
to make their food more palatable. Japan Airlines has installed rice cookers,
Cathay Pacific espresso machines and Air New Zealand a flexible meal schedule.
Qantas Airlines recently commissioned award-winning Sydney restaurateur
Neil Perry to re-create his brand of fine dining at 12,000 m. He started
by dropping one of the oldest tenets of airline catering: heating the
whole meal all at once. In first and business classes, meals are divided
into components, heated separately and assembled in the galley.
flights, the galley is manned by an experienced chef, hat and all, who
personally introduces the menu selection to all business-class passengers
(Ansett no longer offers first class) and then prepares each meal to order.
Salads are tossed chairside, and a dessert trolley allows passengers to
select from a range of delicacies, such as baked pink-lady apples in filo
or a macadamia nut tart.
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But if your flight budget hasn't reached first-class altitude, consider
packing a picnic. Many of the finer hotels in the region are happy to
provide their air-bound guests with sumptuous boxed lunches designed to
make a foodie salivate. The Mandarin Oriental's lunchbox menu reads like
a gourmand's fantasy feast, with a mix-and-match selection of sandwiches
and exotic salads starting at around $15.
While most airlines offer alternatives to standard tourist-class fareCathay
Pacific's special-meals menu boasts 20 selections, from basic vegetarian
to gluten-freeordering a special meal in the hope that it will be
fresher may backfire. Since specialty meals are designed to provide for
a need rather than a want, creative flavor is often an afterthought. Low
demand means the non-standard dishes can end up cooling in the chill room
longer than regular fare.
Providing good meals aloft is a tough business, but convincing passengers
that the food is better can be a simple matter of presentation. British
Airways has upgraded its culinary image by replacing the miniature tableware
with restaurant-sized plates and utensils. The meals didn't change, but
in surveys passengers cite better food as one of the airline's improvements.
So why hire fancy chefs? Just serve passengers wine in real glasses, and
they might drink more of it, and then that abused steak with flaccid greens
might start to taste pretty good.
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