Haute cuisine at high altitudes: until a few years ago, this combination was considered unlikely at best – but today it’s the latest fine dining trend. The world’s major airlines are in a supersonic race to acquire famous chefs as consultants for their on-board meals, paying close attention to ingredients, innovation and variety.
Especially – but not exclusively – for business and first-class fliers, fine dining will be part of the flying experience despite the fact that, at 10 thousand kilometres above ground, there are no kitchens, stoves, and the human palate loses 30% of its ability to taste. But this is what makes haute cuisine on a plane an particularly surprising experience.
Airlines are putting themselves in the hands of great chefs like Darren McGrady, the English chef who worked for years under the employ of the British Royal Family and is now overseeing the business and first class customers of American Airlines. The private Indian company Jet Airways has turned to Yves Mattagne, chef at the two Michelin-starred restaurant Sea Grill in Bruxelles, where some of his menu proposals include Belgian caviar and smoked salmon with minted yogurt, or sea bass roasted in fish broth, served with saffron vegetables.
Didier Schneiter, the starred chef at Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, has leant his skill to Swissair with a menu featuring dishes like lamb filet mignon with autumn vegetables in a cremolata sauce. For a limited time, Cathay Pacific flights paid tribute to the best chefs of Bejing and Hong Kong, serving dishes from the menus of restaurants like the The Opposite House in Bejing and Café Gray Deluxe in the Upper House in Hong Kong.
British Airways sent chef Heston Blumenthal on board on an impossible mission: to find the perfect menu, one that would be as delicious in air as it was on land. And thanks to the focus on umami, the meals on British Airways are now an opportunity to enjoy truly unique flavours and tastes. And their bread, always served warm, is produced by a famous Canadian baker.
Beginning in November 2011, Estonia Air has begun a culinary tour of 12 famous restaurants over 12 months: every 30 days, they give the reins to a different famed Estonian chef, who serve their most renowned dishes. Moving to Abu Dhabi, since last autumn, Ethiad Airways has been offering their Diamond Class passengers the option of ordering specific dishes before departure, and having their meals then delivered on board right before take-off. For some first-class flights Gulf Air and Austrian Airlines have the chef actually on board. Last summer, American Airlines one-upped the competition with an on-board sommelier, there to suggest the best wines for its first-class passengers.
But even for those airlines that aren’t employing Michelin-starred chefs, all carriers are beginning to focus more on the quality of in-flight meals – and not just in first class. Continental Airlines has created its own “Congress of Chefs”, made up of 18 American chefs like Michael Cordùa, owner of the Houston restaurant chain, or Paul Minnillo, chef at the Baricelli Inn in Cleveland.
For 6 months, these chefs have worked together to study the best menus to feature in flights, choosing four personalized menus that can be alternated according to season and geography. For European destinations, for example, the proposed menus might feature a veal marrowbone with saffron risotto, or else grilled Escolar fish with rosemary shrimps accented with bouillabaisse sauce, artichoke barigoule and steamed sugar snap peas.
British Airways also has gathered together a “Taste Team” made up of journalists, critics and chefs (like the starred Indian chef Vineet Bhatia, owner of Rasoi in London): they have the responsibility of studying menus, tasting them and suggesting variations, season after season.