Inside the quest to make in-flight meals less terrible
Though it was an assembly of airplane food, neither chicken nor pasta had been invited to the table. Stale punchlines would not have fit the menu.
“The idea is that we are going to move the needle in airline catering,” said Molly Brandt, the former “Top Chef” contestant who serves as the Swiss company’s executive chef for culinary innovation in North America. “Not everything you see here will fly as I plate it, but perhaps 70 percent of it will, or maybe the essence of the dish will make it onto the plane.”
As travelers’ palates become more sophisticated, the airline industry is trying to keep apace, fulfilling fliers’ desires for more plant-based meals, listing purveyors on menus and incorporating the wonders of fermentation. One of the challenges for global catering companies is to incorporate the ingredients and techniques of the moment — and execute that vision in the clouds. The process weaves together art and science, equalizing flights of fancy with the sobering realities of pressurized cabins.
“Passengers bring their expectations on the ground to the sky,” said Sophitmanee Sukalakamala, an associate professor who specializes in food and beverage management at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte.
“But it’s not going to be that easy. The [catering companies] have to cook the food 24 hours in advance, and then when they reheat the food, will it taste the same? Is it going to look the same? How about the texture? How about the flavor? They have to do a lot of research.”
Airline food is continually evolving. It has gone through a number of renaissances and dark ages, as more than 100 years of in-flight meals have shown us.
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The long, strange journey of airplane food
Our flying ancestors also had to pay for premade noshes, which is to say the industry’s first offerings look uncannily similar to the options on today’s low-budget airlines.
In October 1919, a British airline made history by offering its passengers the first onboard meal, according to Richard Foss, a culinary historian and author of the book “Food In the Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies.” On the London-to-Paris flight, travelers could purchase biscuits or “sandwich packets,” plus a beverage, such as ginger ale, fresh lemon squash or sherry.
Foss said variety was nonexistent. “United had one menu,” he said, citing a flight crew’s manual from 1931 that enumerates the meal. “They valued consistency over creativity.” The choice was fruit, cold fried chicken, rolls, cake and coffee — or nothing.
The advent of basic heating appliances for planes and improvements in food-freezing techniques allowed airlines to expand their menus. Many carriers also experimented with their delivery, sometimes to comical effect, especially in the 1960s and ’70s.
On Western Airlines, flight attendants would don red coats and hats and announce its English breakfast with a recording of hunting horns and hounds. Trans World Airlines crew would wear berets and maid outfits, cosplay for the French-style meal service. Dan-Air, a British airline, would place sandwiches and chips in lockboxes attached to the seatback. Passengers were given a key that would open the left side for outbound travel and the right side for inbound travel. Unfortunately for the next passengers, some travelers would eat both meals.
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In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act shook up the industry by removing government control and ushering in a free market where the carriers had to duke it out for customers. With the competitive heat cranked up, Foss said carriers changed their approach to feeding people. Some reduced or eliminated service or started charging for meals. Others angled to become a high-altitude version of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“The era of creativity was when airlines had their own catering companies and chefs,” Foss said.
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The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks clobbered the airlines and their culinary aspirations. To save money, they scaled back on food and beverage investments. The industry suffered again from the coronavirus pandemic. For safety reasons, carriers suspended food service. But as travel returns, so have meals — for better or worse.
“I can tell from my personal experience the quality of the food is going down,” said Sophitmanee, who usually flies economy. “The portion size is getting smaller, too.”
When grumbling about tasteless food on a flight, don’t blame the chef. Altitude, which dries out the plane and dulls the senses, is one of the primary culprits.
“You can’t smell very well, because your nose will be dry, and you can’t identify the flavor or the aroma of the food,” Sophitmanee said. “You lose about 30 percent of your taste onboard.”
“You lose about 30 percent of your taste onboard.”
— Johnson & Wales associate professor Sophitmanee Sukalakamala
Aviation safety standards and limited onboard kitchen equipment also affect the integrity of the ingredients.
Brandt said red meat and full-muscle proteins must be cooked to a temperature higher than some customers may prefer; the Agriculture Department recommends cooking all steaks and roasts to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. “Medium-rare is never going to happen,” she said.
Hot food prepared on the ground must be chilled before it can be loaded onto the plane and revived in a convection oven. As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, not every dish is made for reheating — such as french fries.
“Anything that involves fried food, avoid,” Foss said of his approach to airplane dining.
Conversely, dishes and drinks with umami — the savory flavor found in mushrooms, miso and soy sauce — shine brighter in high altitudes.
“Try to drink tomato juice when you are onboard the aircraft,” Sophitmanee advised. “It will taste way better than on the ground.”
Cauliflower steaks, and absolutely no pasta
At least once a week in Gategroup’s kitchens around the world, the Swiss company holds a tasting for airline executives wishing to update or overhaul their menus for medium- and long-haul flights. The entire journey from “ideation to going live” can take 180 days, said Kevin Levett, the company’s regional executive chef for North America.
The presentation appears early in the process, when chefs are encouraged to dream big. The fall to earth will happen later.
“They allow me to create and come up with new strategies for our customers without knowing what the challenges are,” said Brandt, who has also worked on cruise ships and in hotels. “I get to plate like I would in a restaurant.”
Brandt is a hunter and gatherer of food trends. She digs for inspiration in food media, including chef-specific and niche publications. She dines out a lot and owns an “obscene number of cookbooks.” She taps social media, especially TikTok. “If you didn’t make the feta pasta or see it in some capacity this summer,” she said, “then I’m not sure you were alive.”
She has established some of her own rules for airplanes, as well. For starters: no green salad.
“The life goes out of it as soon as the cover comes off,” she said. Her alternative: a salad of assertive produce that holds internal moisture, “like cucumbers, tomatoes or mushrooms.”
She minimizes salt, leaning on a spicy ketchup glaze to season an Italian sausage-spiced meatloaf. As a Midwesterner from Minnesota, she considers her mother’s tame tastes when she monitors spiciness.
Brandt is sympathetic toward vegetarians and vegans who are often stuck with pasta, which she placed on the forbidden food list. The meat substitute used in Impossible burgers showed up in her rendang croquette cake served next to a sweet potato puree that mimics the flavor of Joppiesaus, a Dutch curry mayonnaise.
When crafting a dish, Brandt will incorporate such en vogue elements as koji (a mold used to make soy sauce and miso), quick-pickling and meat alternatives, as well as draw from the culture and religious beliefs affiliated with the airline’s route. A prime example of this marriage: Brandt’s roasted cauliflower — sitting in a turmeric-tahini sauce and garnished with toasted chickpeas and pomegranate seeds — that she created for a carrier that flies in the Middle East and India.
After sampling that dish at Gategroup, Tim Carman, a food reporter for The Washington Post, noted that the combination of ingredients provides “the kind of depth of flavor so often AWOL in vegan fare.”
For an airline with a San Francisco connection, she honored local ingredients with the Point Reyes whipped blue cheese alongside a bacon-date relish and sourdough bread. Duck rillettes with ratatouille pickles, brioche and herbs was unapologetically Frenchy.
Carman said much of the food Brandt sent out was “as inviting as anything you’d find on the table at a modern American restaurant.” But it’s time for a hard truth: Most of it is destined for the pampered classes in the front of the plane.
Those of us parceling out peanuts in economy are typically stuck with reheated frozen entrees, according to Jens Kuhlen, president of Gategroup North America.
However, there is a strong possibility that one day coach passengers will be able to taste these meals — or versions of them — without plunking down thousands of dollars for a first- or business-class ticket. The trickle-down effect can work at all altitudes.
“Think of it like fashion. If I am making that capsule collection, eventually these things trickle down to fast-casual,” Brandt said.
A previous version of this article misstated the year of the first meal onboard a plane. It was 1919. This version has been corrected.