There are limits to what a chef can do at an altitude of 36,000 feet. Sharp knives and open flame are out. Oysters are a no-no: The modern airline food-supply chain demands ingredients that can hold for days on end. Quenelles, those delicate little balls of creamed meat or fish, explode when taken to high altitudes. There are ovens, but not stoves, and they are only for reheating; their temperature settings typically include only "high" and "low."
Another problem: Everyone knows airline food is gross.
Yet Michel Roth, a French chef with two Michelin stars and command of the kitchen at L'Espadon, in Paris's historic Ritz Hotel, is attempting to change that. He has lent his name and his reputation to Air France, which introduced a series of his dishes in its business-class cabins this year. When the carrier invited food journalists along for a taste, I was happy to oblige. As somebody who typically (okay, always) travels cattle class, I wanted to know how good airline food could actually get.
Roth is just one of several top chefs Air France has partnered with. Even Joël Robuchon, one of the world's most famous French chefs, has created dishes for the company. And yet the effort underscores the high-stakes battle between major international carriers to draw and hold onto full-freight passengers, often through their stomachs. Air France is hardly alone.
According to Rick Erickson, an independent aviation analyst in Calgary, less than 3 per cent of a major airline's customers – the high-yield ones who pay for business- and first-class tickets – can account for 25 per cent of the company's total revenue. The front of the bus, as it's called, is where the profit lies.
Air New Zealand has reportedly installed state-of-the-art induction ovens on some of its aircraft so that meat and fish can be cooked to order. Singapore Airlines has hired chef Gordon Ramsay to consult on its in-flight menus. Korean Air runs its own organic farm, where the airline raises cattle and grows vegetables for its on-board service. And British Airways is so proud of its in-flight offerings of late that last year the airline opened a pop-up restaurant in London to test-drive its menu. Among the offerings: "rillette of mackerel dressed on a pickled cucumber carpaccio with sour dough croutes" and "fish pie using sustainable sourced hake, dressed with parmesan pomme purée and a warm tartare sauce."
The focus on food and drink has even filtered down to the economy seats. After years of neglect – many frequent travellers might say egregious, stomach-churning, appetite-killing neglect – some of the world's airlines have begun doing the unthinkable, serving somewhat appetizing food and drink in the back of the plane.
Malaysia Airlines allows economy passengers to pre-order meals, and they're pretty good, said Marco 't Hart, a Dutch citizen who runs Airlinemeals.net, which is a trove of reader photographs of meals from airlines around the world. The latest? Fancy cocktails, which are available in economy class aboard several U.S. carriers. Virgin America has even announced plans to introduce a new "send a drink" service, which will allow its customers to order drinks for other passengers from their seat-back entertainment systems.
Yet, unlike in business and first class, fancy cocktails and order-ahead meals nearly always come with a price tag. Many airlines now average between $8 and $10 in such "ancillary fees" per passenger, Erickson said.
Not every airline has caught on. On many European airlines, you're lucky if you can buy a cookie in economy, 't Hart said. And if the buy-on-board meals on recent Air Canada and WestJet flights are any indication, economy-class passengers are wise to bring their own food.
The comparatively short-lived period that many long-time travellers now refer to as air travel's golden era was a product in large part of government regulation. In the United States, as in much of the world, airfares and schedules were dictated by the government; to differentiate themselves from the competition, airlines emphasized their service and food.
One Pan Am ad from the 1950s showed stewardesses pushing carts heaped with lobster, caviar and what looks like chateaubriand, which they carved and served seat-side. In the 1960s, an advertisement from TWA boasted that its first-class meals were cooked to order, and included filet mignon, lobster cardinal, double-cut lamb chops and Cornish hen Veronique.
"There hasn't been anything like our Royal Ambassador First Class menu since Henry VIII invented banquets," it said.
Chef Roth began developing his dishes for Air France last summer, alongside chefs from Servair, a catering subsidiary. The meals are often prepared and cooked three days before a flight, so he had to pick ingredients that could hold their taste and texture. For the same reason, meats and fish have to be cooked all the way through, he was told. And there was no getting around another thing: They would be reheated the same way all airline food is reheated, with the usual sheet of foil crimped over top.
The flight I took was a morning haul from Paris to Montreal. By 11 a.m. or so Paris time, I had an excellent glass of white Burgundy in my hand. The meal started with the airline's usual business-class appetizers – Roth had prepared six main dishes only. The usual was pretty good, though. The first course: tiny sliced scallops with chopped green apple and Comté cheese that had been marinated in lemon, herbs and kaffir lime oil. They served foie gras next, and good bread with Normandy butter.
For the main course, I chose fillet of pollock over vivid favas and French beans, in a buttery sauce made with mussel broth and lemon. I also had a second main course: shrimp and squid with a tarragon lobster sauce, over rice.
How were they? Excellent, really. The fish was (reasonably) moist, the beans were (reasonably) firm and flavourful, that lobster sauce was (unquestionably) delicious – they weren't in the same genus, even, as the usual $6 can of Pringles and those plasticky-tasting $9 pita wraps.
And yet the limitations of airplane food apply the same to business class as they do in economy, even if the ingredients and service are significantly different. The food is made ahead from sturdy ingredients and then quickly chilled before being reheated. It is mass-produced food, made possible through economies of scale.
I ate every bit of it. I liked it a lot. But, still, it was airplane food. Even a Michelin two-star chef can only do so much. When I stepped off that aircraft, I was already excited about the next night's restaurant meal.
Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Globe and Mail's food critic. He travelled courtesy of Air France. The airline did not review or approve this article.
Airplane meal taste bland? Don't blame the cooks, blame the environment, researchers say.
"On aircraft, the sound of white noise diminishes the tongue's ability to detect and discriminate between flavours," said Barry Smith, a professor at the University of London who co-directs the Centre for the Study of the Senses.
Smith, who works with psychologists and neurologists to study how the brain perceives flavour, said some airlines have attempted to counteract this effect by handing out noise-reducing headphones in business class.
But chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, who has collaborated with British Airways, have found other solutions, Smith said. During an interview in Toronto, he explained that our ability to taste flavours does not come solely from our tongues. Blumenthal amped up our perception of taste by stimulating the trigeminal nerve.
The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face, and allows us to detect spiciness in food – it causes a stinging feeling, for instance, when we eat wasabi. Because the nerve is not affected by noise, Smith said, Blumenthal started using stronger spices, such as curries, in the airline meals. "Suddenly, people were saying the food tasted better," he said.
In a promotional video for British Airways, Blumenthal describes some of the other environmental factors inside airplanes that prevent us from enjoying our meals. Eating in an airplane is a bit like doing this," he said, plugging his ears and pretending to chew. "You don't get the texture, which is really important."
Being aware of how the brain responds to these effects are important, Smith said, and has practical implications in kitchens all over the world. "If we know the science of how the brain works," he said, "we can overcome some of the limitations of eating in certain environments."