IT’S NO secret that in-flight food can taste different, even dreary, at 35,000 ft. This is largely due to a combination of the dryer air and cabin pressure, which affects our taste buds. In addition, all in-flight meals are cooked and immediately chilled to retain the quality, as well as for hygiene purposes. As such, not all dishes you find delicious on the ground necessarily taste the same up there.
The scene is somewhat changing though. In a bid to enhance passengers’ culinary experience in the air and to retain customer loyalty, airlines are increasingly spicing up their gourmet offerings on board. Dietary needs and technology that makes it easier to order food in advance and get it delivered to the seat have led to airlines offering a smattering of special gourmet meals, a luxury once only enjoyed by affluent travellers.
The new food menu of Vistara—a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines—for instance, reads like an elaborate spread, something one may expect only at an exquisite fine-dining restaurant. Prawns and leek pie with cherry salsa and sautéed beans, cajun-spiced cheese with zucchini steak, matar pulao with mutton bhuna masala, Awadhi paneer, chicken pan-seared in a Japanese marinade—these are just a few of the dishes that any well-established eatery on ground would boast of.
“Food is a very important part of Indian culture. When we did an in-depth study of our customers, we found several pain points. We realised the importance of food for Indians and also the disappointment they face on this count with other carriers. We decided to work on those pain points. In order to give customers a different experience, we consulted our caterers (TajSats) and threw them a challenge—we asked them to surprise us,” says Giam Ming Toh, chief commercial officer, Vistara. “Flying is almost the same with every airline, but when it comes to experience, it all boils down to what you are served on board and how personalised is the service,” says Toh.
Vistara’s menus are rotated regularly to ensure variety for frequent flyers. “Most airlines serve a fixed traditional menu—generally, some rice and dal for vegetarians and chicken curry for non-vegetarians. Their menu is revisited and changed only quarterly. So we decided to change that,” adds Toh.
Singapore Airlines, which set up an ‘international culinary panel’ comprising award-winning chefs from culinary capitals around the world in September 1998, recently introduced new ‘service-ware’ (cutlery) for its Shahi Thali (it comprises a starter, two types of chutneys, up to four entrées, rice, rotis, a signature dessert, lassi and masala tea, and has been on offer for suite and first-class passengers for the past five years). “The process started in 2013 in collaboration with India-based design firm Awchat and Olsen (A&O) along with celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor. The emphasis was on a modern and elegant dining experience, while retaining traditional elements like the hammertone metallic presentation plate and vintage bronze finishing bowls,” says David Lau, general manager-India, Singapore Airlines.
The airlines’ international culinary panel works closely with the company’s in-house chefs to exclusively curate the unique selection that is available on board. Besides Sanjeev Kapoor of India, the panel includes renowned chefs Georges Blanc of France, Matthew James Moran of Australia, Yoshihiro Murata of Japan, Alfred Portale and Suzanne Goin of the US, Carlo Cracco of Italy and Zhu Jun of China. In addition, it also takes ad-hoc meal requests for all cabin classes based on dietary restrictions. These special meal requests must be made 24-48 hours in advance. “Passengers are looking to enjoy an in-flight dining experience similar to what they receive on ground. The food and beverage offerings on our flights are refreshed every quarter with the expertise of international culinary panel chefs. In recent times, we have put emphasis on ‘special meals’ by providing one of the widest selections to choose from,” adds Lau.
Talking of special meals, Emirates’ flight kitchen in Dubai offers 26 different offerings, from high-fibre to low-calorie, post-weaning to low-purine (for sufferers of kidney stones or gout) meals. The airline also offers religious meals that include a ‘Hindu meal’ (available for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. In the non-vegetarian meal, you can opt for lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, but not beef), a ‘vegetarian Jain meal’ (it does not contain animal products and by-products, and root vegetables such as onions, ginger, garlic, potatoes, carrots, radishes, etc), and ‘kosher meal’ (prepared to comply with Jewish dietary requirements), among others.
As per some reports, about 10% of British Airways’ passengers order special meals. In fact, on some routes to India, that figure can go up to even 50% because quite a few travellers ask for the ‘Asian vegetarian’ meal, the airline’s most popular special meal on routes to India. So much so that British Airways has now included it in its regular food menu on routes around the world.
When it comes to menu planning, a passenger’s profile and preferences have to be taken into consideration. “Planning of menus is a very complex task due to time constraints and the duration of a flight. Singapore Airlines’ in-flight services team collates information from customers through surveys and feedback to develop meals that meet the customer’s requirements,” explains Lau of Singapore Airlines.
The airlines has a ‘book the cook’ service that enables first-class, business-class and suite customers to order their main courses before their flights. Generally, first-class and suite customers can choose from at least 10 options, while customers in business class can choose from at least eight options.
For long-haul flights, an enhanced snack service is also available in between meals. Travellers can choose from a selection of savoury and sweet items such as sandwiches, noodles, cookies, assorted nuts or fresh fruits. They can also choose from a wide range of gourmet bread rolls—ciabatta, focaccia, sesame seed kaiser rolls and kalamata olive bread—plus four flavours of extra virgin olive oil: extra virgin, balsamic vinegar, truffle and basil.
Vistara has also created multiple time slots to serve food—breakfast, refreshments, lunch, evening snacks and dinner. The catch here is that the lunch and dinner menus are different. “We did this so that same-day return visitors won’t have to eat similar meals twice a day,” says Toh.
Food is a very important part of Indian culture. When we did an in-depth study of our customers, we found several pain points. We realised the importance of food for Indians and also the disappointment they face on this count with other carriers. We decided to work on those pain points. Flying is almost the same with every airline, but when it comes to experience, it all boils down to what you are served on board and how personalised is
Giam Ming Toh, Chief commercial officer, Vistara
Passengers are looking to enjoy an in-flight dining experience similar to what they receive on ground. The food and beverage offerings on our flights are refreshed every quarter with the expertise of international culinary panel chefs. In recent times, we have given emphasis to ‘special meals’ by providing one of the widest selections to choose from.
David Lau , General manager-India, Singapore Airlines