Airline food really is getting better

For business class travellers in particular, the standard of meals can be akin to dining in a world-class restaurant.

With prepackaged food making way for freshly cooked cuisine, inflight culinary options have really taken off in recent years.

In a recent business-class flight to the United States with Delta Air Lines, the passenger behind me slept through the meal service. When she woke and asked for her food, the flight attendant had already given her serving of slow-roasted Cascun Farm chicken to another passenger. However, the attendant was more than happy to cook her up a new meal – it would just take 20 minutes.

I’m not a regular business-class traveller, but what surprised me about the exchange was mention of cooking.

Airline food has come a long way since frozen parcels of dried-out chicken and hardy beef were bulk- loaded onto aircraft and dished out to passengers on plastic trays. For business-class travellers in particular, the standard on some carriers is now akin to dining in a world-class restaurant.

"I have a simple rule: if [dishes] taste good on the ground, they taste good in the air." Niel Perry, Qantas create director of food, beverage and service

On Emirates, passengers in first class are served Dom Pérignon and caviar on Royal Doulton bone china, while booking The Residence on an Etihad A380 means flying with your own Savoy-trained butler, en-suite shower and personal chef. An insider told me when one passenger wanted only blue M&Ms on an Etihad flight, the cabin crew went so far as to don gloves and sift through multiple packs to find them.

Choices, choices

It is now possible to get a taste of the Mediterranean before arriving there.

Fierce competition among airlines and a global culinary cuisine renaissance has led to airlines offering sophisticated choices to appeal to a wide range of passengers. Etihad manager of catering and executive chef, Thomas Ulherr, works with 700 chefs to produce a quality of catering consistent on all flights and to ensure classic dishes such as rib-eye steak and grain-fed chicken are available alongside vegetarian, paleo and vegan meals.

Dietary requirements and nutrition also play a big role these days. Some passengers even go so far as to bring their own meals on board, although with stringent health regulations and a huge array of choice, it’s becoming harder to turn down Blue-eye trevalla cooked in coconut milk or Balmain Bay bug with mushroom risotto.

“Airline food has improved significantly over the years, with many business-class flights offering dishes created by high-end chefs,” says Kara Landau, accredited practising dietitian and founder of Uplift Food. “Most of the time, due to changes in air pressure and taste bud flavour perception changes in the air, extra salt is added to dishes.”

Consequently, she recommends passengers stay well hydrated while flying and to go easy on diuretic beverages containing alcohol and caffeine.

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A matter of taste

Emirates is a leader in gourmet offerings for its passengers.

Author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, Charles Spence writes that cabin pressure, dry air and loud engine noise all contribute to our inability to taste and smell food and drink while flying, which is why we tend to eat and drink more than usual (that, and boredom).

However, Australian chef and Qantas creative director of food, beverage and service, Neil Perry, says Boeing 787 aircraft and even Airbus A350s and A330s bring in fresh air and have a much higher humidity, which is not only better for jet lag but also for taste.

“I have a very simple rule: if [dishes] taste good on the ground, they taste good in the air,” Perry says. “I think a lot of the stuff said by other airlines is just to try and pull wool over the fact that they don’t really fly the best tasting food in the first place.”

For Qantas’ inaugural 17-hour long-haul flight direct from Perth to London in March this year, Perry worked with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre to develop a special menu conducive to encouraging sleep. This meant avoiding stimulants such as chocolate and chilli, and ensuring all meals contained leafy greens and fresh fruit, accompanied by herbal teas and kombucha to aid digestion.

Having just celebrated 21 years with the carrier, Perry says back in the old days everything was fully cooked on the ground. Now, first- and business-class meals are refrigerated right up until the crew cooks them in the air.

“A fish fillet or a piece of meat or chicken is seared on the outside to kill any bacteria,” he says. Perry works with 11 staff – six full-time – on the Qantas program. The menu’s planning goes through a stringent creative process, from selection through to costing and quality control, before the team arrives at the 3800 recipes that are rolled out every year.

Even so, despite the variety, old habits die hard. Perry says the humble steak sandwich remains the top biller on Qantas first- and business-class flights. “We went to take it off the menu once and there was uproar,” he recalls.

Read next: What's ahead for business travel?

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June 2018
June 2018

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