Beige, bland, unidentifiable — aeroplane food doesn’t generally enjoy the highest of culinary reputations.
But I’m one of those people who eagerly await the moment on a long haul flight when I peel back the silver foil to discover what’s in store for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
What’s always interested me is how aeroplane food actually gets made. And what goes into producing thousands of meals ready to be heated and served at 38,000 ft in the sky.
To find out, I’m spending the day with British Airways at its sprawling 55,000 sq ft catering facility two miles from Gatwick Airport. It’s run by Newrest Catering, whose 350 employees produce 4,500 meals per day.
The scale of the 24-hour operation is staggering — and cleanliness is key. I start by changing into chef whites, black steel-cap boots, a striped apron, hairnet, face mask — and head to the industrial-sized metal hand washing sinks.
To find out how airline food gets made, Harriet Sime (pictured with the Christmas food she helped make) spent the day with British Airways at its sprawling 55,000 sq ft catering facility two miles from Gatwick Airport
I’m assisting the team in putting together British Airways’ Christmas menu (pictured), which includes a traditional Turkey roast with all the trimmings
I’m assisting the team in putting together British Airways’ Christmas menu, which includes a traditional Turkey roast with all the trimmings. Even under my face mask, the festive aromas are unmistakeable as chefs’ chop, peel, stir and wheel gargantuan quantities of food around.
First up are the roasted parsnips which I drizzle with honey using a slotted spoon as big as a spade before moving on to the cranberry compote station. More than 50kg of Brussels sprouts bubble away by my side in a giant silver vat as I mix bright red berries with sugar, cinnamon sticks and nutmeg.
Every few minutes, a cavernous oven signals that the food is ready with a Christmas jingle before it’s transported in towering trolleys to vast chiller rooms to avoid anything overcooking.
British Airways is expecting to serve 380,000 Christmas dinners (including 600,000 sprouts) in the sky over the festive period.
My final stop is the ‘plating room’, where dozens of workers wearing thermals and woolly hats underneath their blue hairnets (the room is kept at a cool 8c) and long blue plastic gloves prep meals with impressive precision for Business Class passengers.
Everything is done by hand and the employees work along assembly lines, carefully adding vegetables one by one.
At the end of each shiny silver station, a ‘golden sample’ sits in an oval china bowl to demonstrate how each dish should look. I keep a close eye on it as I place three tiny but perfectly roasted carrots on top of the parsnips, followed by a dollop of the cranberry sauce I made just hours earlier.
‘We take a long time designing our menus and test them time and time again until they’re up to standard,’ Newrest’s development chef, Andy Bailey, 53, tells me.
The catering facility (pictured) is run by Newrest Catering, whose 350 employees produce 4,500 meals per day.
Harriet carefully rolled the sausages into bacon as she made pigs in blankets for the Christmas dinner
So how long do these dishes sit around before they reach passengers? For British Airways, the food we’ve prepared will be served on board the following day.
Around 90 per cent of the meals at this facility are produced for British Airways (the remaining are for Air Mauritius, Air Transat, Delta and Vueling). Each week, Newrest provides BA with 52,000 bread rolls, 47,000 desserts, as well as 20,000 bottles of sparkling wine, 45,000 of red wine and 20,000 cans of beer.
‘The perception of aeroplane food is changing,’ Mark Brega, BA’s executive chef, tells me later as we sample a Christmas roast as though we were on board. Celebrity chefs are involved and passengers now have much higher expectations.’
Indeed, as the aviation space becomes more crowded and competition fierce, airlines are now funnelling huge amounts of money into their meal service to set themselves apart.
Cathay Pacific introduced Michelin-starred meals to first and business class passengers flying out of Hong Kong earlier this year, while Etihad offers seven-course tasting menus for those turning left. But this higher standard of food is not just for those in the posh seats.
Harriet made cranberry sauce (pictured above) for British Airways’ Christmas dinner
Harriet Sime (pictured) assisted the team in putting together British Airways’ Christmas menu, which includes a traditional Turkey roast with all the trimmings
Qatar Airways serves passengers in all classes (including economy) a popular mezze of hummus, muhammara, tabouleh and Arabic bread.
Interestingly, I learn how our tastebuds don’t function as well when in the sky as the plane air is dryer, dehydrating our nasal passages and making our tastebuds less sensitive and able to detect flavours.
‘You lose about 30 per cent of your tastebuds so we have to factor this into our cooking,’ says Mark. ‘Generally, British food is very good, but it has a light flavour profile so spicier, more aromatic dishes tend to work better. Buttered chicken or chicken tikka masala are among our most popular dishes.
‘The same goes for wine; some of which taste brilliant on the ground but can taste awful in the air so it needs to be tested.’
The scent of food is also carefully considered when designing meals. ‘Fish like the smell of red mullet can fill up a cabin so have to be avoided. But the aroma of bread is hugely appealing, and signals to passengers that they’re in for a nice meal.’
Generally, 70 per cent of the meals on board will be meat or fish, with the remaining being vegetarian, vegan or special dietary dishes (the team have to cater to 11 different ‘dietaries’). But this can change depending on the route. Flights to India, for example, will require most meals to be vegetarian.
And what about the crew? The flight attendants eat what’s left over after service, while the captain and co-pilot dine on different meals in case either gets ill.
After my eight-hour shift, I’ll be quite happy not to see another Brussels sprout until the big day. But, more important, the next time I’m asked ‘chicken or fish?’, ‘beef or vegetarian?’, I’ll think about Andy and his colleagues — and tuck in with extra relish.