A FEW WORDS that I rarely associate with food on airplanes: beautiful, light, delicious, invigorating, or healthy. Even when I’m lucky enough to be flying in business class, the food on airplanes often looks, feels, and tastes like a gussied-up version of a frozen TV dinner, something plopped out of a tiny aluminum tray mere moments before being delivered to your seat. While I have always been fascinated by airplane dining — the tiny portions, the frequently inexplicable pairings of dishes — I am very rarely wowed by what it is, how it tastes, or the way it makes me feel after I eat it.
This is but one of the many reasons I was excited to be among the first to test out a new series of health-focused meals offered by Singapore Airlines. Created in partnership with California’s Golden Door Spa — widely considered the number one destination spa in the world — these meals, based off of specific Golden Door dishes, are geared toward the general well-being of health-conscious travelers. As one of the most legendary wellness brands in the world, with over 60 years in the business, their partnership with Singapore Airlines, equally famous for their impeccable service, feels like a match made in travel heaven. The goal, according to Singapore Airlines, is to “help passengers achieve improved nutrition, sleep, relaxation, and energy levels aboard flights that can extend to nearly 19 hours without making a stop.”
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It was on one such 19-hour flight (from New York to Singapore) where I was not only able to taste test several of the new Golden Door–inspired dishes, but actually hang out in the galley and see how they are assembled and plated. This fulfilled a lifelong curiosity I’ve had as to exactly how flight attendants manage to plate beautiful-looking meals within the confines of a tiny airplane kitchen. It’s a delicate dance, as it turns out, in which things are heated with either dry heat or steam, and then plated just before being whisked away for service. Chef Antony McNeil, director of food and beverage for Singapore Airlines, explained the long process of testing dishes and sourcing ingredients, not to mention the logistical complications of delivering spa-level meals with fresh ingredients inside the complicated ecosystem of an airline. Fun fact: Altitude and pressurized cabins affect the way we taste things, which means that replicating Golden Door’s delicate sauces for in-flight consumption was an extra-tricky process. In the case of these new dishes, which are rolling out on selected long-haul flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, components are assembled in airport kitchens within 24 hours of being served, and travelers are offered the opportunity to preorder before their flight, and to mix and match specific dishes.
Of the dishes I was able to taste on my flight, I was most impressed by a miso-glaze black cod (a very direct replica of one of Golden Door’s most famous entrees), which was flaky and remarkably flavorful, as well as an artfully plated baby beet salad. I also enjoyed a scallop dish with cauliflower sauce that, once plated, looked like it should have been ushered through the doors of a Michelin-starred restaurant, not somehow assembled in the galley kitchen of an airplane flying thousands of feet above the South China Sea. I also tasted a lemon-roasted Cornish hen with roasted eggplant and asparagus, and a citrus salmon served over pumpkin dal with basmati rice and cilantro ghee, both of which were so delicious that I wanted to eat the entire serving. This would have been both gluttonous and a little embarrassing with Chef McNeil and a coterie of chic Singapore Airline flight attendants watching me. Still, since the dishes were all being touted for their freshness and healthy origins, I didn’t feel quite so bad scarfing down almost all of them.
While so many airline meals feel like heavy sodium bombs typically paired with a wine selected specifically for its ability to knock you out, these meals were perfectly portioned and almost effervescent in their delivery. Even my favorite dish on offer — portobello meatballs with risotto heirloom tomato sauce and wilted greens — was shockingly light, leaving me with enough room to sample the vegan coconut ice cream and steal an extra serving of the spiced apple cake to take with me back to my seat. I’m not sure if it was the quality of the food or the incredible service on the flight, but I arrived in Singapore after almost 19 hours in the air feeling rested, relaxed, and remarkably well-fed — something I’m fairly certain I have never said before stepping off an airplane.
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the deputy editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.