Airline food has long been the butt of jokes and the bane of frequent flyers. But that’s starting to change as expert chefs seek to transform in-flight meals from merely edible to enjoyable.
Leading the local push is of course Neil Perry. As consultant chef for Qantas, the ponytailed Perry has driven a welcome upgrading of inflight and lounge meals as Qantas aims to bring its domestic experience up to par with its international services.
That means a business-class breakfast menu of bacon, tomato, mushrooms and a slice of indulgent French toast, and creamy soups served straight from a thermos rather than reheated in the galley.
Main meals for the pointy end are served from the galley rather than the trolley, which is wheeled out only for entrees.
The fare in Qantas business lounges typically ranges from scrambled eggs to soups, braises, beef stroganoff and pizza, with evening tray-around snacks such as bruschetta or pot pies – plus some delightful deserts.
Guests at the Qantas Club lounges enjoy a similarly fresh if pared-down selection, with an increasing number of meals prepared or finished in an on-site kitchen.
“There’s always that thing that airline food used to be like hospital food!” Neil Perry tells Australian Business Traveller. “I think that people’s expectations have changed dramatically. Food in the premium classes now reflects high street restaurant-style quality.”
“We’re also bringing in things like sustainability and working with suppliers who are really passionate – about making great cheese, about the prawns they’re fishing for or the chickens they’re growing” Perry enthuses. “We’re also one of the only airlines in the world who works with the smaller younger boutique wineries.”
Perry’s new menu for Qantas, both in the air and on the ground, “is more contemporary, more seasonal and adventurous” he explains, “and will change weekly.”
2011 will also see economy-class passengers enjoying something a cut above ‘reheat-and-eat’.
“Next year we’ll be moving into economy and changing what’s going on there, and we’re going to focus on great coffee!” Perry says.
But managing the quality of lounge and inflight food outside of Australia remains a challenge, Perry admits.
“We rely on a number of catering centres and we work very hard to make sure we get consistency. But sometimes we don’t, and we keep working on that. That’s one of the things that is always happening internally.”
“It’s a bit like a restaurant – we attempt to put up our best offering every time, sometimes we fail for various reasons, but we always try to do better and try and improve our caterer’s performance.”
Other airlines are also lifting their culinary game.
September saw Cathay Pacific launch a partnership with a number of the Hong Kong’s five-star chefs. Among them are Chan Sui-kei of the Sheraton Hong Kong’s Celestial Court, Li Shu-tim of One Harbour Road at the Grand Hyatt, and the father-and-son team of Lau Kin-wai & Lau Chun from Kin's Kitchen and The Yellow Door Kitchen.
Last month Lufthansa signed Luxembourg celebrity chef Léa Linster to oversee new in-flight dishes for business and first class. Dutch Michelin-starred chef Jonnie Boer now works for KLM in a similar role as Neil Perry for Qantas, to offer ‘traditional Dutch food’ for the flag-carrier.
Asiana Airlines upped the ante by introducing a new ‘Onboard Crew Chef and Sommelier Service’ in the business and first cabins on flights to the US and Europe. The Asiana flight attendants providing this service have been trained at Le Cordon Bleu cuisine schools and Thanet Wine College.
And if you’re keen for a peek behind the scenes, Australian food blogger and Australian Business Traveller contributor Lorraine Elliot reveals how the in-flight food from award-winning Emirates gets from the airline’s on-ground kitchen to your seat as you cruise 30,000 feet above the ground at her Not Quite Nigella blog.