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April 16, 2009

Airlines Haven't Totally Given Up On Edible Food

How do you take your eggs? bmi has professional chefs on board for premium flyers

by Barbara S. Peterson

Given how hard it is to produce decent tasting food aloft, why don't airlines simply give up the compartmentalized trays and leave us to sup on a pile of greasy fast food we picked up on the way to the airport? Well, most have, at least domestically; my last coach flight reeked of Taco Bell takeout. When I fly internationally, though, I expect to be fed. Quite well. The good news is, this week Lufthansa announced that it is pairing with Ritz Carlton chefs to produce premium-class meals on transatlantic flights.

Starting in May, passengers flying to Germany can feast on dishes dreamed up by Ritz chefs based in Boston, Denver, New York and San Francisco: butternut squash risotto cakes with porcini mushroom sauce, Parmesan-crusted halibut, goat cheese mousse with a Banyuls glaze and crushed pistachio nuts. Sounds much better than Burger King.

When I interviewed Lufthansa's catering team for Condé Nast Traveler a few years ago ("Airline Kitchen Confidential" published March 2006), the chefs spoke candidly about the difficulty of reproducing restaurant meals. The punishing conditions dictated by airline service require, among other things, that components of meals be prepared as much as a full 24 hours in advance. As one chef at the Culinary Institute of America put it, "the reality of airline food is that you're eating leftovers." Yuck.

Things might improve on that score, too, says Tom Abbott, who recently joined bmi's catering department after years as an in-flight chef. Each long-distance flight has a professional chef who oversees the galley, pulling off feats such as steaks cooked to order and freshly made omelettes. Abbott himself presides over some of the flights and said, "I am amazed by how many passengers come up to tell me it's like they are getting a five-star restaurant quality meal." (Note: Lufthansa has just acquired a majority stake in bmi, so it's probably no coincidence that they're both food obsessed.)

Okay, I'm admittedly skeptical, and unfortunately bmi is suspending its only nonstop flights to the U.S., but Abbott had some good points to make. First off, bmi has new galley equipment that can do double duty as a standard oven and steamer. "We can dry cook something and then switch the oven to steam, and steam noodles& we can cook a chicken breast without it getting all dried out." As for those steaks, they are precooked just slightly: "we load them pretty much blue," Abbott says, "and then we can cook them medium rare or more, depending."

Flying foodies can only hope that bmi will return to the U.S. soon.

Further reading:
* Judging from the samples I see on, the foodie influence trickles down to coach meals
* On the Fly: The airline industry


When flying Singapore, if in biz or 1st choose "Book The Cook" prior to check-in & you can have specialty meals available to you....else you only have what's available on the flight.

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