Long gone are the days when in-flight meals involved dry chicken casseroles and tasteless lasagnes. In today’s luxury market, where air passengers expect nothing but the best, the world’s leading airlines are on a mission to create the finest dining experiences around. Although the quality of airline food can vary vastly between carriers, the top airlines are putting considerable thought into nutrition, ingredients and service.
It’s not just the food that has upped its game, either. The world’s leading airlines, such as Qatar and Emirates, take every last detail into account. From fine china to glassware, the canapés to the wine list – they have it covered to ensure their passengers’ getaway starts at the departure gate.
Virgin Atlantic, the British-based airline headed up by Sir Richard Branson, announced in late 2014 that they were pairing with celebrity chef Lorraine Pascale, who has created a range of signature dishes for the airline’s upper class passengers. Guess travelling in upper get to experience dishes such as Thai beef salad with roasted pine nuts and chilli dressing and warm salmon and lentils with chorizo with asparagus and balsamic dressing. A keen advocate of lighter options, Lorraine spent six months working with the airline’s inflight catering team to create the dishes, which were first showcased on Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural Boeing 787 flight to Atlanta in October 2014.
While Virgin has teamed up with Lorraine, Emirates has tailored their menus around regional cuisine to match their destinations. For example, first class passengers onboard the Brisbane to Singapore route are served dishes such as the Asian-braised beef rib and stir-fried lobster in black bean sauce, reflecting the local cuisine in the destination.
With the exception of flights going to Saudi Arabia, passengers in Emirates’ first class are offered complimentary drinks, including cocktails, champagne and vintage wines. What’s more, to order their food and drinks of choice, passengers simply place a call to crew who attend with multi-course meals, snacks and drinks. And there’s not a plastic fork or tinfoil lid in sight, with all meals served on bone china tableware on tray tables laid with fine linen. Guests are served some serious fine dining fare, with dishes such as wild Iranian caviar, Arabic mezze, smoked tangerine chicken, braised beef in coconut milk, garnished with cilantro and fried red peppers, duck breast glazed with wild forest honey, creamed fennel, broccoli soufflés and Parisienne potatoes, while deserts include baked banana and pecan nut pudding or a traditional homemade cheesecake with fresh strawberries. It doesn’t end there, either. Once passengers have wiped their brow and digested their pudding, it’s time for the international selection of cheeses, served with crackers, grapes and crudités.
Arguably South East Asia’s premium airline, Singapore Airlines has worked with an International Culinary Panel since 1998, which is regularly made up of some of the world’s biggest culinary names. Today, the panel includes nine chefs; Alfred Portale (New York), Carlo Cracco (Milan), Georges Blanc (Vonnas, France), Matthew Moran (Sydney), Sam Leong (Singapore), Sanjeev Kapoor (Mumbai), Suzanne Goin (Los Angeles), Yoshihiro Murata (Kyoto) and Zhu Jun (Shanghai); with each chef offering a diverse culinary background to meticulously create recipes for the airline’s first class.
With all dishes in served on crockery exclusively designed by Givenchy and with full-sized glassed and metal cutlery, the tableware alone is fit for a fine dining restaurant. Timing is important, too. Passengers flying in Singapore’s suites or first are not restricted to set times, instead guests are able to select their preferred feasting time, up two hours prior to landing.
Uniquely, Singapore Airlines was the first airline to introduce a bespoke pre-order menu service, called Book the Cook. Book the Cook is available to all first and business class passengers, allowing them to pre-order from a separate gourmet menu at least 24 hours ahead of their flight’s departure.
A good meal wouldn’t be complete without a drinks pairing and Singapore Airlines employs top international wine experts, Jeannie Cho Lee (wine critic, judge and the award-winning author of Asian Palate), Michael Hill Smith (wine consultant, wine judge, writer and commentator) and Oz Clarke (one of the world’s most celebrated wine authorities) to make sure the drinks match up to the food. The experts make two blind tastings each year with over 1,000 bottles tasted, and with over 70,000 bottles of wine consumed in first class every year, they have clearly chosen wisely.
Best of all, welcome drinks on board are served in the form of a very special Dom Perignon Vintage 2004 and, uniquely, Singapore Airlines has nearly 100 Cabin Crew Air Sommeliers, identified by their signature bunch of grapes badge.
Another airline leading the way in first class fine dining is Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways has partnered with four top international chefs, including Nobu Matsuhisa, Tom Aikens, Vineet Bhatia and Ramzi Choueiri, with each chef bringing their rich and diverse cuisine to the airline’s first class menus.
What’s more, first class passengers get to experience Qatar’s signature Caviar service and handcrafted Ladurée desserts, which include rose-scented macarons with raspberry and lychee. In house sommelier James Cluer has selected the drinks program.
Etihad is one of the world’s top ranking, yet youngest airlines and service standards are high. Having undertaken a recent upgrade program inspired by the world’s finest hotels, Etihad’s first class service includes a personalised welcome letter from the Cabin Service Manager and an elegant silver-tray reception service with a welcome drink, hot towel and Arabic dates. While guests can expect bone china by Japanese designer Nikko, designer ‘Royal Oak’ cutlery by British brand Studio William and wine wines from Etihad Airways’ onboard cellar are served in red and white wine stemmed crystal glasses created especially for the airline by Lucaris.
The food journey starts with a selection of enhanced canapés, while the menuincludes a new pre-dessert course served by the chef and a signature XO Cognac served in new Cognac glasses by Norman of Copenhagen.
Etihad’s Dine Anytime service offers an all day menu on long flights, along with a range of dining ware that leaves passengers feeling that they’re sat a restaurant, rather than a plane, including a steel breadbasket, salt and pepper shakers, a hammered-metal side dish, chinaware, cutlery and tall, stemmed wine glasses, adding to sense of sophistication.
So next time you’re sprawled out in your full-sized cabin bed, sipping on a vintage wine while savouring a caviar canapé, do spare a thought for those passenger back in economy class, where, for the majority of airlines, soggy vegetables and overcooked chicken casserole is still very much the order of the day.