Airlines are turning to the new superchefs, such as the Sugar Club's Peter Gordon and Neil Perry, from the Rockpool in Sydney, to revamp their in-flight menus - but can they really deliver restaurant-quality food, flight after flight? Sybil Kapoor goes behind the scenes. Photographs by Adrian Fisk
Travelling long-distance economy class takes stamina. Aside from being exposed to coughing neighbours and travel socks, you feel obliged to eat. You can't help feeling optimistic when you read the menu, but as soon as you rip the foil off your chosen dish and tentatively taste it, all hope evaporates. Thirty per cent of your sense of taste may have vanished 30,000ft up, but the other 70 per cent is rebelling against cheap processed food. Your level of hunger will depend on how ingenious you can be with a cold chewy roll, some cheese and salad.

Dotted around every airport are nondescript buildings that house catering companies. As the planes roar overhead, hundreds of thousands of airline meals are produced, transported and loaded by their workforces. British Airways alone needs around 77,000 meals a day for flights leaving from Heathrow and Gatwick.

The majority of London's airline food comes from contract caterers - such as Gate Gourmet, Alpha Flight Services or LS Sky Chefs - which fulfil the specifications of their clients with military precision, down to the positioning of the last toasted almond on a salad. Everything from price to culinary fashion has to be considered, depending on the airline's position in the market. Using the name of a well-known chef is one way to lure in the expense-account customer, and the choice of chef will tell you a lot about an airline.

The food on Air New Zealand, for example, is created by the likes of Peter Gordon of the Sugar Club in London or Gary Clauson, executive chef at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, depending on which route you fly. As Chris Roberts, in-flight catering manager to Air New Zealand, explains: "We need interesting ideas from people who aren't constrained by knowing the limitations of airline catering." But it is one thing to eat Peter Gordon's grilled scallops with sweet chilli sauce and creme fraiche in Soho, and quite another to sample it flying across the Atlantic. The plate I tasted at one of Gate Gourmet's units was perfectly edible, but let's face it, a scallop that has to be seared, blast-chilled and refrigerated for hours before being reheated in a convection oven, is not going to have the same succulent texture as the freshly fried version.

Health, hygiene and the technical problem of getting large quantities of food cooked, chilled and "plated" have to take their toll. Yet in some senses, this small factory is no different to any busy restaurant. The walk-in meat fridge might be bigger, but the aromatic smell of Gordon's chicken legs marinating in star anise and ginger remains the same. Instead of a small trayful, there are trolley-loads of boned-out legs, waiting to be wheeled into the kitchen and braised. Blue-hair-netted cooks, in special- issue thermal underwear, stand in the carefully chilled rooms slicing salads or fresh fruit, while others methodically plate-up trays which are then stacked into an aeroplane trolley. Every item is weighed or counted, every action is timed and everything is cosseted. The small assembly line of women mechanically copy each dish's photograph, whether it is Gordon's braised chicken with parsnip mash and pak-choi, or his gooey date and banana tart in creme Anglaise.

There is a certain informality in Chris Roberts's choice of chefs. Everyone works as a team, faxing ideas and recipes around the world. Gordon works closely with Gate Gourmet to ensure each dish meets his expectations. Certainly, the economy-class samples I tried were much better than the average offering. Pleasantly spiced and marinated stewed lamb with grilled courgettes, and Gordon's amazingly tender chicken were very good. However, according to Roberts, its reception is dependent on customer expectations. "We fly what we call the Tasmania services from New Zealand to Brisbane and to Sydney," he says. "For years we treated them the same, and for years our research indicated a mixed response. Finally, we realised that the Brisbane flight attracted older holiday-makers who wanted the comfort of their roast lamb and kiwi fruit, while the Sydney run was filled with more sophisticated business travellers who wanted lighter, spicy food."

When the Australian airline Qantas needed to add some oomph to its food, it approached one of Australia's top chefs, Neil Perry, from the Rockpool restaurant in Sydney. Such a move was not unusual, but Perry's response was: he flatly refused unless he was given a free hand to change their catering, right through from first class to economy. "I felt that if I was giving my brand to the airline, it would be better to go down trying, than with a whimper," he explains wryly. Amazingly, Qantas agreed. Perry travelled around the world, visiting the catering units, noting how much food was discarded at the end of each flight, and talking to suppliers. "I think airline food should be kept really simple," he explains. "You need to cut out all the crap and use the best local produce you can find. There is no sense in buying out-of- season strawberries and kiwi fruit in Thailand when you can get beautiful mangosteens instead." And he would rather spend more money on a decent sourdough or wholemeal roll from Bagatelle in London and have fewer items on the menu.

A quick snoop around Qantas's first and business class galleys reveals a lot. A beaming flight attendant, Roger Jackson, proudly pulled out tray after tray of neatly packaged food that would have put the best commis chef to shame. Individual portions of pumpkin soup, its Parmesan croutons stored in a separate area; puffed-up bags of beautiful green salad leaves; trays of blanched spaghetti, followed by containers of tomato and black- olive sauce. Even the seared turbot looked fresh and appetising. Within an hour it was ready to serve, down to the small bowl of marinated Ligurian green olives gently warming to room temperature on the top of a hot-water pot. Jackson was responsible for cooking and plating the food on the flight, assisted by a secret guide book produced by the Rockpool team. I was not allowed to look at it, but apparently it lists everything from individual heating times to food contents and serving instructions.

Neil Perry is obviously a man who believes in total commitment. Head chefs from all the catering units, in-flight service managers and first-class flight attendants were flown to Australia and subjected to four intensive days at the Rockpool: meeting suppliers, inspecting food, shadowing the restaurant staff and tasting every new dish. Whether the same success will follow when he revamps economy class later this year remains to be seen.

There are others who are as keen as Perry to overhaul airline food. Brian Turner, for one, would love British Airways to give him an open cheque book and a brief to organise every aspect of its food with three other chefs. "I am very proud to be an Englishman," he muses. "And it would be a crazy but wonderful and prestigious job to do." So far, he has developed just one dish for BA's world traveller (economy) class: marinated sun-dried tomato chicken with a dry ratatouille of grilled vegetables, chive mashed potatoes and red pepper sauce. "It shouldn't be over-complicated," he explains, "and it must taste of the product rather than mask it."

As I stood in front of this dish in the presentation room of Alpha Flight Services' Gatwick catering unit, the enormity of the British Airways operation hit me. I was surrounded by a team of people who had been responsible for the development of this one meal. For eight months they had visited Turner in his restaurant to compare their interpretation of his recipe with his own and been forced to analyse what they felt was different about the two. To my relief, it really tasted of chicken. I wasn't sure what I was going to say if the tomato and pepper sauce hadn't complemented the meat or the vegetables hadn't had a pleasant "grilled" flavour. As it was, only the mashed potato was dull.

Derek Reid, corporate development chef for Alpha Flight Services, believes Turner's dish reflects current food trends. "These days, we are marinating far more meats, because it not only makes them tender, but imbues them with more flavour." Chargrilled vegetables, roasted peppers, aubergines and comfort foods such as mashed potatoes are all "in" foods on airlines. "We've noticed a resurgence in mash in the past 12 months," Reid continues. "We've done everything from olive-oil mashes to horseradish or mustard mash. It's user-friendly, easy to eat and very compatible with a lot of dishes." Olive oil is another "new" ingredient that Reid is experimenting with. He has found that olive-oil-based doughs such as focaccia withstand the chilling that ready-plated trays are subjected to, better than other breads.

Downstairs, I am whisked into the cooking area, filled with ovens and immense pans, in which vast quantities of chicken biryani can be cooked. One of the chefs, Neil Gorton, winner of Britain's Best Indian Curry award, is introduced before I am out again among the chilly tray-packers. Reid contracts out certain foods, such as cakes, but he insists on his recipes being followed, whether for his lemon tarts or blueberry muffins.

British Airways has used many consultant chefs over the years, but it still retains Michel Roux and Anton Mosimann, principally to inspire and impart their philosophies to BA staff through seminars. It would seem that consultant chefs are big on culinary philosophies. Mosimann describes his as "my minimalist approach and belief in simplicity, freshness and seasonality". Roux believes that "I give them my flair, my imagination, my simplicity and my sophistication as an overall adviser."

Whatever the reality of airline food, every chef I spoke to wanted to eat simple food while they were travelling: crusty warm bread, crisp salads, home-made ham-and-mustard sandwiches, or the best cheese and fruit. The problem is that the airlines believe we want more. Neil Perry suspects the future of bulk airline food will be cryogenically frozen meals, while Chris Roberts thinks many airlines will move on to snack foods. Others may choose to spend their budgets on in-flight entertainment, expanding into video games rather than good meals. So tell the cabin staff what you want, because they report on what they are told, but not on what is left on the plate