Frequent flyers know that an airline's food can vary significantly depending on the airport caterer that created it.
Even airlines that serve decent food from their home hubs can end up offering inedible leathery beef or insipid rubber chicken on the homebound leg, where they rely on local caterers to load the plane with your dinner.
Australian Business Traveller spoke to Robin Padgett, Emirates' Vice President in charge of airline catering, to find out how an airline sets up "outstation" catering at overseas airports as part of creating a new route.
"Catering is very much an integral part, one of the core things that we need to get right," Padgett says, explaining that Emirates caters to a wide variety of business traveller.
Global airline, global palates to please
"In our particular case, we have an extremely broad and eclectic demographic. We're a global airline and we draw on a global customer base. You can't make simple assumptions that the passengers on the flight are 50 percent Zambian. There will be a whole host of different nationalities."
When we spoke to Padgett, he was in a car heading to a meeting in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where Emirates launched a new route this week.
We asked Padgett what the differences were between catering in Zambia and in, say, Australia.
"There's no doubt that it's more challenging. Access to raw materials is more difficult, but it's certainly not impossible if you go looking carefully enough. It's finding and developing the right partner."
"Certainly, Africa is -- and this is a very broad generalisation -- as a continental economy opening up and becoming more easy to do business in, more outward-looking. We're finding it a challenge, but not an insurmountable challenge," Padget tells us.
Getting local catering right
Frequent business travellers to developing countries often enjoy regaling less-travelled colleagues with tales of airline catering woe -- the 'I flew forty hours on four flights to Timbuktu for a meeting and all I had was an orange and a cup of coffee' stories.
Padgett explains how the airline gets around those problems to bring you a decent meal.
"For us, the way we surmount these problems is good planning. Plenty of time getting ready beforehand, spending time on preparation, being very clear about what our specification is and, where we can't source a particular product, making sure you can find an even better alternative."
"We're finding lots of people to help us who have great local experience, so that's how we get around it, plus support from our guys in Dubai, who have lots of expertise and experience."
"It's not something you can subcontract and walk away from, it's something you need to manage with guys who have practical experience on the ground," insists Padgett.
"It's about throwing time and effort at it rather than just zipping in and flying off again. We've had a team on the ground for six months, evaluating and understanding. It's getting all of our processes understood, checking on the quality of ingredients we're getting. Things are available if you know where to look."
The growing influence of Asian tastes
With Emirates' hub in Dubai well placed for international connections from Asia and Australia to Africa, the airline is placing an emphasis on catering to a wider global palate.
"I know it's a cliché," Padgett admits, "but you're starting to get a lot of people from Asia, and from China in particular, interested in this part of the world. So for us, in designing our menus and the food we put on board, the challenge is designing it for an eclectic wide audience."
"We can look after the aspirations of the countries we're flying to, we can look after the needs of our Western audience and our Asian audience, and make sure we meet all of their particular needs."
"Australian travellers are fantastic!"
Padgett's view of Australian business traveller's palates and tastes is positive too -- no fly-in, fly-out, triple-loaded-beer-on-board stereotypes for him.
"Australians have a very strong awareness of global cuisine, and what quality looks like. We're very much behind that. We have an Australian catering company, and they're almost crazy in their view on how good the food quality needs to be, how fresh it needs to be," Padgett enthuses.
"There's definitely an understanding and awareness of what good healthy food needs to be like. Australian travellers are fantastic! They have extremely high aspirations in terms of what food quality should be like, which is great."
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.