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AIRLINE cuisine used to be synonymous with bad food: think gluey peas, steaks as tough as a dog's chew toy and unidentified mound of mash masquerading as potatoes. All that has changed in the last few years. In-flight dining has seen a dramatic uptick in quality thanks to collaborations with Michelin-starred chefs, award-winning hotel restaurants, and celebrated wine authorities.
Even with the challenges presented by being 30,000 feet up in the air, airlines are not only expanding their menus, they are also going all out to bring the dining experience to another level. For example, Garuda Indonesia in February upped the ante by bringing trained chefs onboard to personalise passengers' meals throughout flights.
There are no sweeter words to a frequent flyer than "new menu". To bring more options to passengers, All Nippon Airways (ANA) teamed up with chefs from Regent Singapore, part of the Four Seasons hotel group. The hotel's four restaurants will take turns to showcase a new menu that changes every three months for business class flights to Japan from December.
Not only are airlines bringing in the expertise of Michelin-starred chefs, they are also trying to create an haute dining experience. Case in point: Air France's new luxurious La Première suites make passengers feel like they are in an actual restaurant. Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, introduced a new wine consultant to curate vino that is perfect to enjoy up in the clouds.
All Nippon Airways
Hotel restaurants are not limited to serving their cuisine on land. Regent Singapore has signed on to design in-flight meals for All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan's leading airline. The year-long partnership will see the chefs from Summer Palace, Basilico, Tea Lounge, and Manhattan, take turns to craft menus for ANA's business class passengers travelling from Singapore to Tokyo. Summer Palace, the doyenne of Cantonese cuisine, will be the first to kick off the culinary partnership on Dec 1. Passengers can expect appetisers such as marinated jellyfish with poached prawn, celery and black fungus, and steamed fresh scallop topped with wasabi mayonnaise and mango cubes. Summer Palace's executive chef Liu Ching Hai showcases his signature black olive fried rice with oven-baked cream snapper. Quintessential elements of Cantonese food such as yu tiao (fried dough sticks) and creamy yolk of the pidan (century egg) are also incorporated.
Regent Singapore's executive sous chef Angelo Ciccone, who is spearheading the Basilico menu collaboration, is keen to "showcase signature items that made Basilico so popular such as the fresh mozzarella and sweet Italian tomatoes as well as ingredients that are distinctly Italian such as fregola from Sardinia and black truffles".
ANA is also working with Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok and Shangri-La Hotel in China. Mitsuo Tomita, general manager of Singapore office and vice-president of marketing & sales Asia at ANA, explains: "Patrons at hotel restaurants are similar to our passengers. Hotel restaurants understand the dining needs of the customers, and they're able to transfer that knowledge to our passengers. When we collaborate with them for our in-flight menus, we strengthen our food services."
Mr Tomita adds that collaboration is advantageous to hotels too because "they have an opportunity to reach out to ANA's passengers and grow a following".
When you dine in Air France's La Première private suites, you might think that you're in a fancy restaurant in Paris instead of 30,000 feet up in the air. All the elements of a fine dining experience are present. White tablecloth? Check. Fine Bernardaud porcelain and Christofle cutlery? Check. Caviar and champagne? Check.
Reflecting a move towards more upmarket products and services, Air France debuted the luxurious La Première suites onboard the long haul Air France B777-300 aircraft in September on flights from Paris to Singapore and Jakarta. The La Première sees the first class section transformed into four exclusive suites. To give the impression of upscale dining, curtains can be drawn for more privacy.
To design its menus, Air France has picked no other than Joël Robuchon, the multi Michelin-starred celebrity chef. Air France has teamed up with Chef Robuchon since 2011 on several occasions. For the autumn menu, dishes include fried scallops in coralline sauce with fregola pasta risotto, or shredded duck confit with truffle and mashed potato gratin. Since October, Air France has reintroduced caviar for its La Première passengers. Chef Robuchon puts his spin on the decadent ingredient with a starter of salmon tartare with shiso sprouts and caviar that will be offered throughout November. Taking the art of French dining to another level, the cuisine is plated on tableware created by famous French designer Jean-Marie Massaud.
Choosing wines for an airline is very different from choosing wines for a restaurant. "We are well aware that things are different in the sky. The first thing we look for is high quality fruit and if the wine is too lean or dry, you lose some aroma in the air because your nasal cavity dries up in the cabin," says Oz Clarke, the newest member to join the Singapore Airlines panel of wine experts following the retirement of Steven Spurrier.
Mr Clarke is one of the world's most celebrated and colourful wine authorities. Together with Michael Hill-Smith and Jeannie Cho Lee, Mr Clarke will pick wines for Singapore Airlines. Selection is done by blind tasting about 1,000 bottles every six months. "Everyone thinks this wine tasting is endless fun but it's tough work," says Mr Clarke on a recent visit, sharing that his team spent a whole day sampling 133 red wines looking for the perfect Bordeaux pour to serve on Business Class in 2015, and they picked only six after much discussion.
Besides classics such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and champagne, Mr Clarke says that there are also alternatives for someone who is feeling a bit more adventurous, or wines that he refers to as "wild cards". "We do take risks," he adds. The team will also look towards New World selections from Argentina and Chile.
Every year, Singapore Airlines serves up to S$6 million worth of duty-free vintage Dom Pérignon and S$4.2 million worth of duty-free Krug Grande Cuvée, depending on the route. Joining these two bubblies is the Taittinger Prelude "Grand Crus" offered to Business Class customers. "Prelude 'Grand Crus' is made solely from the best Grand Cru vineyards in the Taittinger family's own estate and is then aged for more than five years in their cellars. For elegance in the glass and exclusivity in the air, this is something really special," adds Mr Clarke.
AS PART of a £5 billion (S$10.2 billion) investment, the airline is upgrading its dining experience aboard the new A380 aircraft on major routes, such as Singapore to London.
For First Class passengers, BA has introduced a "Champagne Supper", a choice between an a la carte menu or a five-course tasting menu accompanied by a selection of three champagnes.
Chef Gwendal Hamon, former Claridges pastry chef turned British Airways menu designer, created both the a la carte menu, which includes dishes such as pata negra ham and tomato confit with grilled artichokes and sherry dressing, and the five-course tasting menu, with dishes such as cured ocean trout with lemon jelly and apple slaw and an indulgent raspberry and lychee dome with vanilla rose anglaise.
Not the type of dishes that most people would expect to be served on a plane, but Chef Hamon foresees more variety for in-flight cuisine as it evolves alongside customer's demands. He says: "Healthy options are very important for people now, so it was important for us to include that in our menus by adding 'light dishes' and salads."
However, there are still many other variables that he also needs to consider when creating a menu. "It's very difficult to come up with a menu when you have so many things to take into account, like what type of proteins reheat better and what is safe to be consumed on a plane."
While fish such as cod and salmon are great for reheating because they don't loose their moisture, dishes containing raw fish are an absolute no-no for the chef. "You can't be sure it's safe," he says.
He also has to take into account how the sense of taste is altered on airplanes due to the numbing of the taste buds - part of the reason why airplane food usually tastes so bland.
He reveals: "We don't make up for the altered senses by adding salt. In fact, we use less than the recommended allowance. Instead, we supplement our dishes with spices, herbs and citrus fruits like lemon that will really bring out the flavour of the dish on a plane."
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Reporting on British Airways
By Lisa Fratini