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Fine dining on airplane: A peek into Mumbai's in-flight catering facility

Despite a leading Indian carrier having changed its menu on a popular route after 10 long years, in-flight catering is emerging as an evolved culinary process. We map the chiller-to-cabin trail

Hidden behind Waterstones Hotel in Andheri (E), near the International airport, is the city facility of Skygourmet, the Indian arm of the independent global airline catering service Gate Gourmet. Its buzzing four-level kitchen churns out 16,000 meals for 68 departures per day for various domestic and international carriers. Resembling a high-maintenance food lab, the facility is divided into cutting, cooking, cooling and processing sections, including a bakery, confectionery and a separate kitchen for whipping up first class meals. Here, the items — fruit plates, vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian, Continental and Chinese meals, breakfast fare, desserts and even breads — are well-segregated, prepared and plated in-house before being shipped off to the flight. Wearing colour-coded uniforms, hair caps and face masks, the staff, as if on autopilot, takes care of every detail specified by different carriers, including the fruit cuts (read: papaya scoops for one airline and cubed for another), portion-sizes calculated on weighing scales, the plating as per pictorial references and most importantly, hygiene standards and the cooling chain process.

"Many variables play a part in creating or redesigning on-board menus, including the airline’s culinary vision, its regional, nationwide or international service, budgets and seasonal availability of raw materials. On-board options vary depending on the destination, duration, and time of flight. Also, our chefs factor in emerging flavour profiles to offer well-balanced, high-quality dishes to satisfy the passenger," says Rohit Narang, director commercial. A case in point: Twice a year, the chefs create close to 400 dishes, which are put up for an airline to select as part of its menu revamp.

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor

This tour was piqued by news article in a national daily about a leading Indian carrier that underwent a menu re-haul on its Delhi-London route after a decade. When we contacted a spokesperson from the carrier, they refused to confirm the development, saying, "Flight menus are changed twice a year with the change of flight schedule. This practice has been followed for many years now. Also, at times, the menu is revised depending upon the feedback."

Created by chef Sanjeev Kapoor for Singapore Airlines, Shahi Thali features a starter, two types of chutneys, up to four entrées, rice, Indian rotis, a signature dessert, lassi and masala tea
Created by chef Sanjeev Kapoor for Singapore Airlines, Shahi Thali features a starter, two types of chutneys, up to four entrées, rice, Indian rotis, a signature dessert, lassi and masala tea

Still, one can safely assume that today, in-flight meals across airlines are a top priority. "In-flight food has evolved by leaps and bounds, not only in business/first class but also the economy section. The creativity is phenomenal," observes city chef Rohan D’Souza. The frequent traveller, who helmed the menu of a leading Middle Eastern airline a few seasons back, lists his favourites, "I like the menus of Jet Airways, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. Etihad tops the charts for its food in the business class while Australian carrier Qantas has celebrity chef Neil Perry on-board, curating lip-smacking menus across the network."

A variety of breakfast, entree and mains prepared by Skygourmet catering. Pic/Ajinkya Sawant
A variety of breakfast, entree and mains prepared by Skygourmet catering. Pic/Ajinkya Sawant

Flight of fancy fare
While earlier, meals were restricted to vegetarian or non-vegetarian, today, most carriers include more options based on dietary and religious preferences. Cathay Pacific, which operates 48 weekly flights from India to Hong Kong, offers more than 20 special meals, which can be ordered a day in advance. "We have seen a rise in vegetarian meals over the years and hence, offer more than five types including Indian, oriental, lacto-ovo and vegan. There is also a surge in demand for healthier options like fruit platters, low-salt and low-calorie meals. Due to religious reasons, we avoid meals containing beef/veal on the Indian route," informs Rajesh Menon, regional sales and marketing manager — South Asia for Cathay Pacific.

Pardah Biryani is an interesting Indian option served on select routesPardah Biryani is an interesting Indian option served on select routes

Cathay Pacific changes its menu on a monthly rotational basis, working with Oberoi Flight Services as a catering partner.

Jet Airways refreshes its food programme on international and local routes annually. On select international routes, they even offer Indian food from London’s iconic Bombay Brasserie. It has also introduced the innovative Pardah Biryani. "The biryani is enclosed with an edible covering (pardah). We worked with the caterers to tweak the normal process of preparing a biryani for the in-flight experience," says a spokesperson.

Stir-Fried Prawn with Snow vegetables, Edamame Beans and Steamed Jasmine Rice
Stir-Fried Prawn with Snow vegetables, Edamame Beans and Steamed Jasmine Rice

Singapore Airlines has brought nine famous chefs on board as part of the International Culinary Panel (ICP). These include Alfred Portale, lauded as the pioneer of new American cuisine and India’s Sanjeev Kapoor, who has designed a Shahi Thali for Suites/First Class travellers on Indian routes. "All menus are route-dedicated. For instance, there’s Ming Jia Zhen Zhuan on Chinese routes and Kyo-Kaiseki (First Class and Suites) and Hana-Koi-Reki (Business Class) on Japanese routes. Local favourites like bibimbap are served on Korean routes," says David Lim, general manager (India) for the carrier.

This January, Turkish Airlines introduced the Flying Chef Service on its Mumbai-Istanbul route where business class passengers had on board chefs serve an exhaustive menu including cocktails and traditional Turkish tea and coffee. One of the chefs, Masita Memduha Birol, is in town this weekend to kickstart a Turkish food festival in collaboration with the airlines.

The challenges
D’Souza admits that recreating restaurant style-gourmet cuisine for an airline is no cakewalk. "For a Middle Eastern carrier, you can’t use pork and alcohol in the cooking process. The food needs to be balanced and light. When the menu is route-specific, the composition has to be a mix of global and local dishes. For instance, a flight to Hong Kong will include an Oriental dish," he adds. Another challenge is to prepare dishes for mid-air consumption. "Food tastes different when you are 35,000 feet in the air due to a combination of factors like drier air and cabin pressure. Rich flavours taste milder, aromas become subtle and we often miss the nuances. We test all our chefs’ creations in a simulated pressurised cabin, and spend hours there, sampling and adjusting the flavours," says Lim. Jet Airways spokesperson adds, "Food served on board needs to be high on moisture content while taste is modified without artificial flavouring."

Menon sums it up, "Delicious food is one of the great pleasures of travelling. We believe the food journey should not simply begin at the destination, but on board a flight."

Safety first
In addition to complying with regulatory requirements in the various jurisdictions, Gate Gourmet globally has implemented its own internal food safety control function and system. The overall quality management system is based on the principles of ISO 22000, with internal food safety control system based on the World Food Safety Guidelines for Airline Catering (issued in collaboration with industry partners and the International Flight Services Association and Association of European Airlines) as well as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) risk analysis. In HACCP, each process flow is evaluated and based on the risk level, and necessary controls are implemented to assure the highest level of food safety. In addition to these protocols, various preventive measures and control programs are in place to further assure product and service quality.

- Rohit Narang, Director Commercial, Skygourmet

Your airline menu fix

Singapore Airlines: Try the Book The Cook meal service to relish fare curated by chef Sanjeev Kapoor along with other other celebrated chefs from China, USA, France and Italy.

Qantas Airways: With signature menus crafted by celebrity chef Neil Perry, dig into wholesome main courses like the Grilled Barramundi, Tenderloin Sliders and Fresh Passion Fruit Pannacotta.

Jet Airways: Tuck into the innovative Pardah Biryani, Indian food from Bombay Brasserie in London (on select international routes), oriental meals on routes to South East Asian destinations, Western meal options for Europe and Canada. Opt for the Book Your Meal option online to pick from 25 special meals.

Cathay Pacific: Along with special meals, three choices of entrée include Murgh Makkai Ka Soweta with Masala Pulao, Tulsi Badam Kofta with Kesari Pulao and Khumb Matar Curry and Stir Fried Noodles with Black Bean Sauce.

Turkish Airlines: If you’re flying to Istanbul, try the recently introduced Flying Chef service that offers a restaurant-style experience with a chef on board too.

Skygourmet: Domestic airlines catered by the service offer route-specific Indian, Oriental and Continental options like Pasta Alfredo, Rava Masala Dosa, Pahadi Kabab, Chicken Nuggets, Hakka Noodles, Hyderabadi Korma, Strawberry Cheesecake, etc.

The cooling chain process
Every airline practises a cook/chill process whereby the food is cooked completely and quickly chilled to below four degrees Celsius, protecting it from bacteria growth. Food is then portioned and packed as specified before loading onto the aircraft. It is reheated in the in-flight ovens. The cabin crew is provided detailed ground training on how to operate the in-flight oven and the basics of food and plating. To know about safety norms, log on mid-day.com

16,000
The number of meals created every day by Skygourmet’s city facility

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