According to my friend Nick, airline food is like Christmas dinner. He has come to accept that when it arrives, it is almost certainly going to be dry, limp and devastatingly overcooked. But he looks forward to it all the same, because that familiar dubious taste is all part of the ceremony of flying and that special occasion – going on holiday.
However, this passive acceptance is waning. As desperate airlines clamber over each other for custom, passengers know they can demand more. Airline food, after seat comfort and punctuality, is now the most important factor a passenger considers when they're booking their ticket.
If anyone knows how important mile-high meals are, it's Gate Gourmet, the world's largest independent airline caterer. The Swiss company supplies 270 airlines from 140 locations in 37 countries and feeds 309 million passengers every year.
"When you are encapsulated in a metal tube for hours on end, food offers a welcome break in the monotony," says Lynne Watts, commercial director at Gate Gourmet UK and Ireland. "We try to deliver something that will do more than just cure the boredom – something to get excited about – a bit of theatre in the air."
The Gate Gourmet team tell me food is now as important to passengers as the in-flight entertainment system, and airlines have taken note.
"A few years ago, airlines didn't think about anything other than cost," says Steve Walpole, senior executive chef at Gate Gourmet, who has been instrumental in the recent development of new and improved airline menus - including that of British Airways. He says airlines used to cut corners when it came to food. "Take British Airways as an example. They're a British carrier, but I'd say five years ago, at least 60 per cent of their ingredients and their menu options were not British. Now, we use seasonal, British ingredients and we change some menus up to 12 times a year."
British Airways' latest attempt to invigorate their menu is a competition which asks the British public to design a special in-flight menu for long-haul flights during the 2012 London Olympics.
I wish I could share all of this enthusiasm. But as I picture the plastic trays presented to thousands of cramped economy-class passengers every day, I find it hard to accept Watts's assertions that cattle-class cuisine is no longer "that horrible airline meal that you expect to be hiding under the foil".
The vast production statistics do not help Gate Gourmet's case either. When more than 40,000 meals leave the company's Heathrow airport depots every day, to supply 13 different airlines, it is not easy to accept that they have been created with as much love, care and attention as claimed – especially as the food giant still hasn't quite managed to shrug off the negative press it received in 2005 over food hygiene issues and its decision to sack 670 staff, prompting hundreds of British Airways staff to take unofficial strike action.
Bearing all of this baggage in mind, when I take a behind-the-scenes look at what really goes into making that all-important mile-high meal at Gate Gourmet's Heathrow West facility, the operation is undeniably impressive.
It's no surprise that Jim Headrick, executive chef, head of quality control and my guide for the day, started his culinary career in the army's catering division. It requires military-style precision to manage the sheer logistics involved in supplying edible meals for more than 80 flights a day.
"It is a nightmare," admits Headrick as he shows me Europe's biggest fridge, where Club and First class meals are temporarily stored before being dispatched to the planes. "If we deliver five minutes late, we have to give the airline that flight's food for free."
Economy meals are in Frankfurt, frozen, and delivered by the lorry-load to Gate Gourmet's Heathrow facility, where they are either stored temporarily in freezers, or thawed for imminent dispatch on to the planes. I'm baffled as to why the meals need to travel thousands of miles to get on a long-haul flight, but Headrick insists that Frankfurt offers the best facilities to mass-produce meals on such a vast scale.
Around 5,000 Club and First class meals are actually cooked or prepared at the Heathrow facility everyday. Considering such massive output, the level of human input is unexpected and refreshing. I meet one of 60 chefs, who is busy flipping omelettes – it's her job to diligently make more than 300 in one six-hour shift for BAs' Club meals.
Specialist chefs float around the kitchen. They've been enlisted to create the most authentic tastes possible, in order to appeal to increasingly important markets in India, China and the Middle East – where an Anglicised version of global favourites no longer does the job. A huge array of religious and cultural food requirements are now also taken into account and the facility has its own Halal kitchen, where a chef is cooking kebabs as I walk past.
"These chefs are experts in undercooking food," Headrick says as he shows me another area of the surprisingly small kitchen – and one of the key tricks of the trade – the knack to keeping green vegetables from losing their colour. Large metal cages of lush broccoli are being dipped into huge metal vats of boiling water, where they cook until they have "just a bit more bite than al dente". The florets are quickly lifted out and dropped into cold water, which immediately stops them from cooking. That way, when the cabin crew put them in a dry oven for an hour as the plane taxis, they stay looking as fresh as they can when they are served.
This method of onboard cooking, and the way the food is subsequently served, has hardly changed in the past three decades. This is one of the key problems Headrick and his team face when developing innovative airline menus – there is little they can do about cabin crew overcooking the meals, unappetising and environmentally-offensive plastic packaging, cramped seating and stale airline air, which all serve to taint the in-flight dining experience.
Even Heston Blumenthal struggled when he attempted to cook for British Airways passengers at 37,000 feet for his Channel 4 series. He tried to combat the detrimental effects that in-flight dehydration has on passengers' taste buds by asking them to take a "nasal douche" (water sprayed up their nostrils to re-hydrate their taste buds).
Unsurprisingly, Gate Gourmet has not adopted that particular innovation. But Blumenthal has made his mark, and his experiments with umami – a mouth-watering fifth flavour which does not diminish in the air – have influenced BA's latest economy meals.
"The way to enhance the taste of food without putting tons of salt in it is to use umami-rich ingredients, such as porcini mushrooms and soy sauce," says Walpole, who regularly discusses new ideas with the chefs at Heston's restaurant The Fat Duck. Walpole, and the rest of the staff, are unfailingly proud of their innovative approach.
When we arrive in the tasting room, the wide array of foods look and smell far more appetising than expected – even the economy meals under their dreaded foil – but the tasting is the ultimate test. It is all delicious – the highlights being the Hereford beef steaks, locally-sourced British mozzarella salads, and delicate finger sandwiches designed by The Dorchester chef Henry Brosi from the First and Club-class menus. Amazingly, the soy sauce-infused economy-class stir-fry is also praised just as loudly. To achieve this level of quality on such a vast scale is genuinely remarkable.
"Airline food still gets a lot of flak," admits Walpole. "But I think we can hold our heads high and say we've really achieved something special here."
However, one important factor is missing – the plane. Airline food has come a long way in the past five years, and Walpole has exciting plans for the future – which could see smaller, tapas-focused dishes replacing main meals. It's almost a shame that Gate Gourmet churns out such fresh ideas and delectable dishes, because until airline travel changes, in-flight food seems doomed to retain its stale reputation. The caterers have done their bit, now its the airline's turn.
The not-so high life: Other culinary crimes
On an Air China flight to Beijing one traveller reported, "some sort of a dry cake and brown lumps. I couldn't figure out what they were." Another ate, "Russian salad with imitation crab sticks".
On an Aero Continente flight Oliver described his drink as"bright yellow and bubble gum flavoured." Another says his tasted like "dentists' mouth wash".
On a flight to Kiev, Nigel gets an unidentifiable meat sandwich. "The tea helps to soften it before chewing," he says.
"Dessert was so bland," says Michelle on an EVA Air flight, "I had no idea what I was eating. It was a square of foam." www.airmeals.net
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