Airlines embrace kitchen science to keep passengers in tough times
ONE of the world’s busiest airports, Hartsfield- Jackson in Atlanta, lies a mere 312 meters above sea level. Which, it turns out, is perfect for your taste buds.
At low elevations, the 10,000 or so taste buds in the human mouth work pretty much as nature intended. With an assist from the nose – the sense of smell plays a big role in taste – the familiar quartet of sweet, bitter, sour and salty registers as usual. Tomato juice tastes like tomato juice, turkey Florentine like turkey Florentine.
But step aboard a modern airliner, and the sense of taste loses its bearings. This isn’t simply because much airline food is unappetising, although that doesn’t help.
No, the bigger issue is science – science that airlines now want to turn to their advantage as they vie for lucrative business- and first-class travellers.
Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, or roughly 10,670 meters, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows. Taste buds are missing in action. Cotton mouth sets in.
All of which helps explain why, for instance, a lot of tomato juice is consumed on airliners: it tastes far less acidic up in the air than it does down on the ground. It also helps explain why airlines tend to salt and spice food heavily.
Without all that extra kick, the food would taste bland. Above the Atlantic, even a decent light Chablis would taste like lemon juice.
But after years of belt-tightening, airline executives are investing again to attract business passengers willing to pay a premium for tickets, and food is a big part of that effort. This includes devising new menus and even hiring celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, of Hell’s Kitchen fame, to consult. The motivation is obvious: Business and first class account for about a third of all airline seats but generate a majority of the revenue.
Keeping high-end customers is crucial to the bottom line.
The industry can’t afford missteps.
Airlines suffered mightily as travellers pulled back after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the decade that followed, domestic carriers lost a combined $60 billion as competition intensified and fuel prices rose.
After so much turbulence, airlines are trying to chart a more profitable course through mergers and a renewed focus on business and first class. Many have installed flat-bed seats on some domestic flights, fancier entertainment systems and Wi-Fi.
But in the kitchen, science is still working against airlines. To crack the taste code, Lufthansa, the German airline, went as far as enlisting the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, a research institute near Munich. Among other things, the airline wanted to know why passengers ordered tomato juice. The answer was that for many passengers, tomato juice apparently has a different taste in different atmospheric conditions.
“We put a lot of effort in designing perfect meals for our clients, but when we tried them ourselves in the air, the meals would taste like airline food,” says Ingo Buelow, who is in charge of food and beverages at Lufthansa. “We were puzzled.” So are many other people.
“Ice cream is about the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Airlines have a problem with food on board. The packaging, freezing, drying and storage are hard on flavour at any altitude, let alone 30,000 feet.” The journey from recipe book to industrial kitchen to a plane in midflight is fraught with peril. It’s not just a culinary feat – it’s also a logistical nightmare. The $13-billion-a-year airline catering industry serves millions of meals daily worldwide.
It must maintain supply chains, standards and quality under a variety of local conditions.
Once all the food is aboard, airlines face another hurdle: Planes don’t have full kitchens. For safety, open-flame grills and ovens aren’t allowed on commercial aircraft. Flight attendants can’t touch food the way a restaurant chef might in order to prepare a dish. Galley space is cramped, and there’s little time to get creative with presentation.
So attendants must contend with convection ovens that blow hot, dry air over the food. Newer planes have steam ovens, which are better because they help keep food moist. Either way, meals can only be reheated, not cooked, on board.
“Getting any food to taste good on a plane is an elusive goal,” says Steve Gundrum, who runs a company that develops new products for the food industry.
Today, airlines want to recreate some of those glory days in their upper-class cabins, with United States carriers – trying to bounce back from years of financial cutbacks – aiming to catch up with foreign rivals’ international service.
And some of those rival carriers have been raising the stakes. The menu at Air France, for instance, includes Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemon grass. The dishes were created by the chef Joel Robuchon, who has collected a total of 27 Michelin stars in his career.
United States carriers, while elevating their international food service, have generally shunned such refinements on domestic flights. But Peter Wilander, managing director of onboard services at Delta, wants to bring some glamour back.
Last year, Delta hired Michael Chiarello, a celebrity chef from Napa Valley, to come up with new menus for business-class passengers flying on transcontinental routes – New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco. It was not the first time that Delta had worked with a renowned chef.
The airline has served meals created by Michelle Bernstein, a Miami chef, since 2006 in its international business class.
“Our chefs are like portrait painters,” Wilander says. “They can get pretty creative.
But we need to translate that into painting by numbers.” That process began last May, when Chiarello met with executives and catering chefs from Delta at a boxy industrial kitchen on the edge of the San Francisco airport to demonstrate some of his recipes. Among the dozens of dishes he tried were an artichoke and white-bean spread, short ribs with polenta, and a small lasagna of eggplant and goat cheese.
“I am known for making good food, and airlines generally are not,” says Chiarello, who is also the author of a half-dozen cookbooks, the host for a show on the Food Network, and a former contestant on Top Chef Masters and The Next Iron Chef.
Huddled around him, white-toqued chefs from Delta and its catering partners weighed each ingredient on a small electronic scale, took scrupulous notes and pictures and tried to calculate how much it would cost to recreate each dish a thousand times a day.
It took Chiarello six months to come up with the menu. He tested recipes, picked seasonal ingredients, considered textures and colours and looked at ways to present his meals on a small airline tray. Then Delta’s corporate chefs had to learn his way of cooking and serving. Bean counters – the financial kind – priced each item. Executives and frequent fliers were drafted to taste his creations.
There were a lot of questions. How should cherry tomatoes be sliced? (The answer: once, down the middle.) What side should a chicken fillet be grilled on? (Skin first.) How many slices of prosciutto can be used as appetisers? (Two large ones, rather than three, struck the balance between taste and price.) For airlines like Delta, these are not trivial matters. A decision a few years ago to shave 28 grams from its steaks, for example, saved the airline $250,000 a year. And every step of kitchen labour increases costs when so many meals are prepared daily. An entree accounts for about 60 percent of a meal’s cost, according to Delta, while appetisers account for 17 percent, salads 10 percent and desserts seven percent.