The quality of airline food, regardless of the class of service in which you are sitting, is a great debate starter. Comments on websites, chat rooms, blogs and other spleen-venting outlets range from the snide and desperate, to “You’re on an airplane. Can your fancy restaurant get you across the country in four hours?” to “The [name of dish] was the best I’ve ever had and I now serve it at home”. The hubbub stems not from the food, but from the airplane environment.
Pressurized cabins are great for not allowing our bodies to explode, or the fuselage of the plane to collapse like a soup can in a trash compactor at altitude. The downside, however, is pressurization lowers humidity. The dry cabin air evaporates nasal mucus, an essential part of the human olfactory system. Medical and gourmet authorities agree that about 80% of what we consider taste is actually smell.
International carriers, including British Airways, Lufthansa, Delta, and Air France are going to great lengths, and expense, to address improving food and wine flavors at altitude. Some have brought in distinguished chefs to develop enhanced menus; some have created new laboratories to study the problem. Korea Air has even started raising their own animals and growing their own crops for their improved meals. All this effort is to combat the basic problem that all airline food on commercial flights must be cooked on the ground and reheated in the air in convection ovens that blow hot, dry air over the food. Although some planes now have steam ovens which create more moisture during reheating, the food still remains cooked on the ground and reheated in the air.
British Airways is calling their enhanced taste initiative “Height Cuisine”. It is not a specific menu, but “an approach applied across all four BA cabins”, reports Executive VP-Americas, Simon Tallings-Smith. Bolder flavorings now being incorporated include chili powders, curries and lemon grass, along with umami-rich foods, such as seaweed, tomatoes, mackerel and parmesan cheese. Umami is regarded as the fifth taste the human tongue can discern. Interestingly, some unpasteurized, hard cheeses that one might not particularly care for at ground level, taste much better at altitude. On BA flights, only four cheeses are served, and all maintain their superb taste at altitude. BA has hired Chef Heston Blumenthal to work with its in-flight caterer, Gate Gourmet to create a game-changing meal, void of the logistical nightmares in preparing over 17,000 meals a day. The solution was a classic British dish with a twist: Seaweed Cottage Pie, and it certainly has proved to be the game-changer BA was seeking. Recipe for Seaweed Cottage Pie.
Chef Simon Hulstone, who mentored under Blumenthal, has created a special Olympic menu for British Airways. Served on select BA flights between July and September 2012, Hulstone’s creations take inspiration from the airline’s menus dating back to 1948 – the last time the Olympic Games were held in London. The bold and innovative dishes exemplify the “Height Cuisine” concept and incorporate popular ingredients from that era. Hulstone’s offerings include rillette of mackerel, hake fish pie, golden beetroot starter, and a chocolate fondant with salted caramel liquid center.
Lufthansa has constructed a fuselage-shaped lab at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to test passengers’ perceptions of taste. They found that, at high altitude, the perceptions of sweetness and saltiness drop by up to 30%, while sour, bitter, and spicy flavors are minimally affected. The airline has also enlisted Chef Toni Robertson, Executive Chef from the Mandarin Oriental, New York
to design more robust meals. Although not specifically addressing at-altitude cuisine, Chef Robertson includes more savory, robust components to her creations, including horseradish chili sauce, beets, shiitake mushrooms, chutney, ginger soy dressing, lemongrass, wasabi and red cabbage slaw, tamarind, and chilies.
Delta Airlines’ Sommelier, Andrea Robinson says, “Subtlety is not well-served at altitude.” Tomato juice tastes far less acidic in flight than on the ground, and on flights, tomato juice consumption rivals that of beer. More full-bodied red wines are served than perky Chablis, which tend to deteriorate into tasting like lemon juice at altitude. Delta has enlisted the skills of Chef Michael Chiarello to design menus, again, using flavor-forward foods including roasted red and yellow peppers, sun-dried tomato spread, chive mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, fresh arugula, red chili flakes and parmesan.
Air France hired renowned Chef Joel Robuchon to bring some of his signature dishes to their menu. He designed robust meals such as: Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemon grass, Chicken breast in green curry sauce, poppy seed rice, carrots and shiitake mushrooms, and Crayfish pasta with Nantua sauce.
Enter the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Its PR juggernaut touted revolutionized comfort in air travel, including better cabin climate and more sensory-friendly lighting, both of which have a direct influence on our senses. Humidity in the 787 is between 10% and 15%, compared to 4% to 7% on other aircraft, but still rather low when 15% is the same relative humidity as an average summer afternoon in Las Vegas, Nevada. The service record for the 787 is new, with commercial, long-haul flights by All Nippon Airways starting in January 2012. Passenger reviews were mixed regarding the effects of increased humidity in the cabin. This was a typical offering, from a blog, from “AADC10”, from the United States: “It may not be as much better as they might think. Much of taste is actually linked to the texture, which is often poor on airplanes because the food is pre-cooked and re-heated. While the 787 cabin pressure and humidity is higher, most reviews have not shown a night and day difference due to the atmosphere. The pressure is approximately equivalent to 6,000 feet (vs. 8,000 for a conventional aircraft) so it is still quite different than sea level.”
Meals and flavor-forward foods described in this article are not the same as what the airlines call “special meals”, which include Kosher, Muslim, Hindu, vegetarian, vegan, childrens’, low-fat, etc. Please check with your carrier to inquire about the availability of their version of haute cuisine meals on your specific flight.