If you think preparing food for room full of customers is hard, trying doing it for hundreds of airborne “rooms” of people you’ve never even met, with all food cooked the day before.
That’s the challenge airline caterers face every day and it’s one Peter Ho, Cathay Pacific’s regional catering manager for North America, has spent decades mastering.
“Airline catering creates many challenges a regular restaurant environment doesn’t have to deal with. You have to work with airline schedules, temperature has to be carefully controlled and safety and quality standards have to be higher than at a hotel,” Ho said.
While all food preparation requires skill and dedication, airline catering throws a series of logistic wrenches into the equation which complicate the process. An average food cycle sees a plate of airline food cooked and flash-frozen roughly 24 hours before it’s scheduled to be reheated on a flight and eaten. Care has to be taken in transport to ensure the food stays safe – and tasty – to eat. Special food requests need to be dealt with well in advance and last-minute flight delays can throw the entire production process into a loop.
Consistency is also crucial, right down to the size and shape of a piece of meat or a portion of mashed potatoes. While in a normal restaurant people might order completely different dishes, on a flight no one wants to sit next to someone who opens up their meal to find a much nicer-looking cut of the same meat as you. Menus need to change regularly so that frequent fliers on the same flight path feel they’re getting something new as often as possible.
“Consistency and standards are extremely important, so airline kitchens have a lot of logistics going into them. Passenger requests change all the time and we keep on changing with them, we have to be innovative all the time,” Ho said.
The secret to good food is good chefs, and airline chefs need to be just as passionate as those in other industries, but with a healthy dose of flexibility due to the constantly changing nature of work schedules and menus.
“Good chefs will have a good culinary background and must have passion for their jobs. They also need to follow strict specifications and be flexible and prepared all the time. You need P.D.C – passion, dedication and commitment,” Ho said.