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JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3

Imagine: Airline Food You Can Actually Eat

Illustration for TIME by Mariko Jesse.

If there 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 wine—famous vintner, dubious vintage—in tiny plastic cups.

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 day—as Cathay Pacific's catering facility does in Hong Kong—airline 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 unsatisfied passengers.

Now 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.

Imagine: Airline Food You Can Actually Eat
Ever wonder why airline food tastes like undifferentiated mush? Well, consider how it's prepared

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On Ansett 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.

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 fare—Cathay Pacific's special-meals menu boasts 20 selections, from basic vegetarian to gluten-free—ordering 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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