Virgin Atlantic have enlisted the cookbook writer to spruce up their menu

The trouble with airline food began in 1987. Up until then, the food on the plane was part of the draw. If you travelled on Concorde you could expect grilled grouse and vintage champagne. It was one of the means to rope you in. But then something happened. An executive at American Airlines found that if they removed just one single olive from the salad they offered on board, they would save $40,000 a year.

With that olive extraction, in-flight food became not so much the cherry on the flying experience, but a margin to be squeezed. Now, though, in a market more competitive than a bazaar of carpet sellers, airlines see that by improving their food, they improve the experience and are more likely to get the passenger booking again. Few more so than Virgin Atlantic.

The airline has engaged Lorraine Pascale, the model turned cookbook writer, to revamp all the children’s food on board and that served to passengers in Upper Class. She spent three months working with Virgin’s chefs to convert her own recipes into sky-friendly ones.

The problems are many when creating mile-high meals, as Pascale points out. “It is difficult to get things crisp up in the air, and so it is important to try and incorporate things which are naturally crispy. I wanted to do a breadcrumb topping for one dish, for example, but it was too difficult to achieve.” 

 

That isn’t the only challenge, either. At elevations below 10,000ft, taste buds and sense of smell work happily together, registering bitter, sweet, salty and sour and umami. But go above that to 35,000ft, cruising altitude, and you lose a third of your palate, to say nothing of the deleterious effect of the nose-drying low humidity. That is why salty stews and curries often feature on our tray tables – the food needs to be bold to even register.

Pascale’s way around this is simple: “using herbs and spices is the best way forward when creating food for up in the air, so that people really can get some good flavour in their mouths.”

Some problems are insurmountable, though, even if you do have a television cookery show and have sold as many books as Martin Amis. The most difficult thing about airline food is logistics. It is a £8bn ($13bn) industry that fills the stomachs of hundreds of thousands of people per day – the right tray has to always end up in the right galley. And when it is in the galley, it then needs cooking – but how?

Open flames are not allowed on commercial flights, so the food, which is partially cooked on the ground, is finished off using either a convection oven or a steam cooker.

The trick, then, is to keep dishes simple and punchy. Mac’n’cheese works particularly well, especially if onion is added into the mix, as it gives texture – Pascale has put this on her children’s menu – but you will be hard-pressed to get a chunk of beef that is anything other than tough as camel meat when you are mile high. So if, as is the case for most us, you are turning right when you get on board, choose wisely.

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