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A Bright Future for In-flight Food

A Bright Future for In-flight Food

On board a flight with Andreas Caminada cooking from Zurich to New York as we discuss the future of dining in the air and why it may involve 'neurogastronomy'.

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He put his head down and ran, there really wasn’t long left. How could they forget?  They’d been planning it for a year, meticulously preparing everything for the past two days - 48-hours of checklists: packing, unpacking, repacking - a military precise operation and now, with just minutes to take off, he was charging across the terminal with a bag of herbs knowing full well he wasn’t going to make it on time. But he had to try.

He tucked his chin into his chest further and gave one final burst, spinning the corner to the gate. The security stewards, expecting him, quickly cleared a path. The sound changed as his foot hit the rubber, he was close and he could hear them calling. He turned the final bend, “come on”, they hurried, “the captain says we have to close the doors.” They were letting them go as slow as possible but the heavy door had a tendency to swing shut after half way, he knew this and made the decision. As soon as he saw the team he threw the bag and watched it spin though the air, with just seconds to spare it was caught by one of the waiting crew members. He crouched to take in more air, they'd made it. The chervil was on board and the plane could finally take off.

This mad airport dash was made by one of Swiss International Air Lines ground staff, on any normal day he wouldn’t need to break a sweat, but today wasn’t a normal day and it certainly wasn’t a normal flight. On board stood the three-Michelin starred chef Andreas Caminada accompanied by five of his highly trained crew from the Schauenstein Schloss restaurant in Switzerland. They needed those herbs to finish dishes, a small but highly important part of a multilayered menu about to be served to an entire plane - around 200 passengers - four-courses for economy, 11 for business and 13 for those in first.

After pre-flight snacks and some very quick prep from Caminada and crew, the plane took off and service began. Food, placed on crisp white linen and served alongside a collection of Swiss wine, rolled throughout the flight. Thin slices of beef tongue topped with apple and horseradish, scallops perfectly seared and served with a spicy carrot sauce, veal cheeks slowly cooked and drowned in wonderful richness. And all this before the cheese, the apple marinated frozen balls, and the lollies passed out across the plane. "More champagne, sir?" Odd momentary glances out of the window seemed to continually jolt people back to reality … a sort of collective epiphany felt by the entire plane every hour or so - 'wow,' we were gently reminded, "this isn't actually a restaurant.”

“We started this almost a year ago,” explained Caminada, “I have many airlines already who have asked me if I want to do a menu and I’ve always said no because I knew the quality would not be possible to put into a plane… I wanted to do it once, do it nice… we put in a lot of energy.” The energy the chef speaks of was evident throughout the meal, but most apparent most when watching him work in the tiny work space at the front of the aircraft. 

“It was a nightmare to get all this stuff on the plane”, he admitted there was just so many questions he didn’t anticipate. “Packaging, what comes where? How do we pack it in the trolleys? I wrote the menu and then they told me: ‘this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work and this doesn’t work’. You can not use any machines, no mixers, heating plates - no nothing. You have two ovens and that’s it. They’re powered by steam and they have three levels, low, medium and high.”

For a chef who sits at number 43 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List and someone who prides himself on controlling the application of heat in the kitchen, making him cook with an option of low, medium and high is sort of like asking Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel with a red, blue and green crayola. It’s why the chef was so reluctant to sign up to produce a full menu, “it’s a logistical masterpiece to bring good and fresh food onto a plane because the space is so tight.”

As much as chefs like Caminada explain the difficulty in cooking great food on board commercial flights, airlines seem intent on spending large sums in an attempt to offer better cuisine above the clouds. British Airways famously worked with Heston Blumenthal to change their food on planes, Eithad Airways and Turkish Airline allow flyers to pay extra for a personal chef on board and Qatar Airways hired celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa to design one of their in-flight menus - let's not forget Air France who currently work with one of the world’s highest decorated chefs, Joël Robuchon, to produce their menus.

But can these chefs and their years of expertise really have a lasting effect on the in-flight dining experience? Could a chef feasibly be on board each flight to ensure the highest possible quality? Caminida thinks not, at least not for every passenger, “for the whole plane it wouldn’t work out. If it’s only for first class, there is a chef on board always and the preparation is good then maybe it could be good… I think that many people will pay an extra charge for good food.”

But, and Caminada also found this, producing great food in the air is not always about the chef, the preparation, cooking, or the ingredients. Cabin pressure, air conditioning and even the sound of the engine can change the way passengers perceive flavour, as Dr. Florian Mayer, a scientist from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, showed when he conducted a number of experiments into how odor and taste perception are altered by the pressure difference created during flights.

Conducting research at the Fraunhofer flight test facility in Germany, using the front fuselage of an Airbus A310-200 in a huge metal tube where pressure, humidity and temperature could be controlled - Dr Mayer tested a number of candidates on their perception of odor and taste in normal and low pressure environments. One of the reports he worked on explained that: “The unique atmosphere on board aircraft influences passengers’ perceptions. One of the most obvious reactions is the changed preference for food, e. g. the tendency to more salty dishes, popularity of Asian meals, preference for tomato juice, complaints of a bitter coffee taste.”

Caminada actually echoed these results, “I was thinking about the taste at altitude and most people told me to season as normal and then taste in the air. Some dishes were fine, some we needed to add more salt to bring out the flavour and some, like the mushrooms, actually had a different flavour.” What's interesting is that I often picked up on the Asian notes in the food, something that was also backed up by Dr Mayer's research. "There are hardly any losses in Asian foods because of the spices and soy sauces they are using - this is why Asian dishes work well, also Mexican chili dishes", he explained. 

Mayer's research concluded that, “dishes need a pinch more salt and herbs and reduced acid. Desserts need more sweetness. The beverages should be selected by tending toward more intense, deep and berry-like wines and avoiding light, fresh and acid-rich wines.” But are these factors enough? Does a pinch more salt really cut it? 

Having experienced the meal, the difference in taste was only really noted in the wines, the food tasted great but lacked that bit of sharpness you sometimes percieve from salty or sweet foods - as if the edges of everything had been slightly rounded off, the sharpness sanded away. However, I think the extra pinches of salt or spice to combat the effect of cabin pressure are only one of many aspects that should be considered. There’s the air conditioning, the constant rumble of the engine and the issue of lighting - something that actually plays a key part in the dining experience at Caminada's restaurant where he serves a number of dishes on specifically designed light plates. The chef agrees that light and also sound could potentially play a new role for airlines trying to improve perception of taste in the air, “it’s another visual and it brings the food into another perspective - if you use products that let the light come through it has a big effect on the experience."

It might feel strange but the idea of sound and light altering the perception of taste is entirely acceptable and all part of an interesting school of thought that falls under the banner of "neurogastronomy”. It’s actually worth noting that even though Dr Mayer’s test facility could emulate the sound of a plane taking off and flying, the sound was actually disabled as 'to exclude the influence of that stressor on taste and odor perception.' Dr Mayer explained that the decision was based on the idea that "if you hear loud noises then you also weaken your perception". 

On top of sound, a number of studies have been conducted into colour and how this can alter a person's perception of taste - just recently, Flavor, a scientific journal, published findings on how the color of a cup can alter the perceived taste of coffee, proving that a white cup will give the impression of a nicer tasting coffee. You only have to look at the amount of chefs now working to offer multi-sensory dining experiences to see how many people are harnessing this new knowledge to try and alter our dining experiences.

At the beginning of the year the drinks company Diageo conducted some interesting research on peoples’ perception of the same whiskey consumed in very different environments. They found that drinking a glass of single malt in a room full of real grass with the sound of birds chirping, made the whiskey seem grassier. The candidates were then asked to taste the same whiskey in a red room filled with the sound of bells ringing where they perceived a much sweeter tasting whiskey.

Heston Blumenthal famously serves one dish with an iPod playing the sound of the sea, helped by Condiment Junkie, an entire company dedicated to working to bring the worlds of sound and food closer together. Caminada has worked directly with light artists - and there is of course el Somni by The Roca Brothers - a quick look at these projects and you realise the lengths chefs are going to in order to stimulate our senses. Some research even goes as far as suggesting the shape or 'mouth geometry' of food can also change how we perceive its taste.

For me, this should be the next frontier for in-flight food companies, to consider the other aspects that contribute to a great dining experience. Perhaps if airlines take note of this new field of ‘neurogastronomy’, the next mad dash a young worker has to make across the airport terminal may not be to deliver a pack of forgotten herbs, but to instead quickly throw in the remote control so the crew can adjust the music, sound effects and personal mood lighting in-flight. ‘More chamoisee with your Champagne, sir?”

For Caminda there’s one overriding take-home from the whole experience: “I’ll never complain about bad airline food again”.



Sources: Fraunhofer Institute for Building PhysicsBBC.


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