On a return flight from South America in 2011, I was ensconced comfortably in the business-class cabin when the meal arrived: a hearty-looking filet mignon in a red-wine sauce served with new potatoes. Knife and fork in hand, I tucked in. Or tried to. Though it bore appetizing grill marks, the beef was impenetrable. I turned to the potatoes; they’d been cooked to mush. Having just spent several days in Uruguay, where humble parrillas served me some of the best grilled beef and roasted potatoes I’d ever tasted, I couldn’t understand how, in this era of culinary enlightenment, airlines could continue to screw up something so simple so badly. The fact is, while science has brought tremendous advances to air travel over the years, airplane food has remained stubbornly immune to improvement. Dry chicken cutlets, flavorless turkey wraps and gluey pastas remain the norm on most flights.
Change is in the air, however. A few months after my rubber-meat experience, I boarded a New York–bound Air France flight in Paris and was served a dinner that was delicious even by terrestrial standards: a lamb couscous redolent of toasted cumin and studded with pine nuts and currants. The meat was fall-apart tender and tasted unabashedly of lamb. It was a quantum leap forward. The menu announced that the dish was the creation of none other than Joël Robuchon, the world’s most Michelin-starred chef.
Robuchon was one of several chefs hired by Air France and its Paris-based catering affiliate, Servair, to head up the Studio Culinaire, the world’s first culinary think tank dedicated to in-flight cooking. The studio launched in 2009. Other major airlines have hired big-name chefs to help create in-flight menus—including Heston Blumenthal for British Airways and Marcus Samuelsson for American Airlines, among others (see “Maybe Not Exactly Three-Star Airline Meals, But…”)—though Air France seems to be placing the greatest emphasis on the primacy of fine cuisine.
Recently, I paid a visit to the Studio Culinaire, located at Servair’s immense catering facility at Charles de Gaulle Airport, outside Paris, to see how gastronomy and science are conspiring to improve the lot of hungry air travelers.
I learned that achieving airplane food that does not taste like cardboard is very, very hard to do. Open-flame heating on planes is prohibited, and all meat or fish must be fully cooked before it comes onboard. “Cooking à la minute is just not an option,” said Andreas Bergmann, general manager of the facility, “and most cabin crews are still using 1980s-era convection-oven technology.” If quick-searing and grilling are verboten onboard, overcooking (the kind my filet mignon suffered) would seem inevitable.
“Eating at altitude also modifies your taste sense,” Bergmann continued. “At 35,000 feet, in an atmosphere with virtually no humidity, your taste buds lose sensitivity. Most cooks respond with more salt. We use spices and acidity.”
I thought of the lamb couscous I’d tasted en route to New York and asked how the cooks preserved the lamb’s tenderness and flavor. Michel Quissac, Servair’s corporate chef, told me that the lamb shank had been browned briefly over gas heat and then put in a special pressure cooker that recirculates steam to amplify flavor in a shorter time.
Later that morning, on a tour of Servair’s kitchens, which turn out some 230,000 meals a day, I was shown a few tools of the trade. In one room stood a Multivac packaging machine used for vacuum-sealing food. A worker in a lab coat was transferring portions of marinated beef chuck into plastic pouches and placing them on the Multivac’s sealing tray. The meat would then be cooked for 15 hours at a very low temperature in an immersion circulator before being served as beef bourguignon.
In the next room over, a few of those immersion circulators—hot-water baths that cook food at precisely calibrated temperatures—were burbling away. Nearby stood a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Convotherm combi oven, which allows cooks to intricately preprogram cooking temperatures, even for recipes requiring complex gradations. In one of the ovens, vacuum-sealed fillets of turbot were cooking; a probe thermometer protruded from one of them and was transmitting the fish’s internal temperature to an adjacent computer screen. Controlling temperature with pinpoint accuracy over an extended cooking time allows cooks to bring foods just to the point of doneness and not beyond. Induction heating is also being introduced on planes, an innovation that will allow cabin crews to offer passengers eggs cooked to order, among other comforts.
My visit to Servair culminated in a tasting with Robuchon as well as two more of Studio Culinaire’s consulting chefs: Guy Martin, of the fabled Le Grand Véfour in Paris, and Jacques Le Divellec, owner of the namesake Paris seafood restaurant. As we drank our wine and ate plates of beef bourguignon—too garlicky, pronounced Robuchon—the chef of the world’s finest kitchens mused about what could be achieved with airplane food. “Everything is changing,” Robuchon said. “What we’re doing today will be very different tomorrow. I’m confident it will just keep getting better.”
For more about Air France’s new dining, go to airfrance.com.
Maybe Not Exactly Three-Star Airline Meals, But…
It’s hardly news that airlines are recruiting big-time chefs as a way to upgrade. A few really have made a difference.
Joel Robuchon: Robuchon teamed with Guy Martin and Jacques Le Divellec to develop Air France meals in 2011.
Heston Blumenthal: The chef in 2012 focused on umami—the savory taste—for British Airways meals.
Pierre Herme: In 2012, the pastry chef made desserts (green-tea custard, chocolate tart) for All Nippon Airways.
Marcus Samuelsson: Red Rooster’s chef created gourmet sandwiches for American Airlines in 2011.
Fact: Each day before flight, 20,000 service items (towelettes, mini–salt shakers, etc.) are loaded onto an Air France A380.