A Pan Am ad from the 1950s featured stewardesses pushing carts replete with lobster, caviar and Chateaubriand, carved and served seat-side.
A 1960s TWA advertisement boasted that its first-class meals were cooked to order, and included filet mignon, lobster cardinal, double-cut lamb chops and Cornish hen Veronique.
Chris Nuttall-Smith, Globe and Mail’s food critic, explains that veteran air travelers refer to that period as air travel’s golden era, which was made possible when airfares and schedules were dictated by the government, forcing airlines to compete by emphasizing their service and food.
Fast forward decades later and we find that many U.S. carriers offer lousy food or no food service at all, but Chris claims the battle between major international carriers to draw and hold onto full-freight passengers is now being fought again by attempting to win over passengers’ stomachs.
Because according to Rick Erickson, an independent aviation analyst, less than 3 per cent of a major airline’s customers — business and first-class — accounts for 25 per cent of the company’s total revenue.
“The front of the bus, as it’s called, is where the profit lies.”
That’s why Air France contracted Michel Roth, a French chef with two Michelin stars at L’Espadon, in Paris’s historic Ritz Hotel. Even Joël Robuchon has created dishes for the company, and is among several top chefs Air France has partnered with.
Singapore Airlines has hired chef Gordon Ramsay; Korean Air runs its own organic farm, where the airline raises cattle and grows vegetables for its on-board service.
And Air New Zealand has installed state-of-the-art induction ovens on some planes so that meat and fish can be cooked to order.
Chris suggests that even the economy seats have improved cuisine. “After years of 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, a website that features nothing but airline food and includes photographs of meals from airlines around the world.
Chef Roth began developing his dishes for Air France last summer, with chefs from Servair, a catering subsidiary. The food is pre-made then quickly chilled before being reheated. “It is mass-produced food, made possible through economies of scale.”
The meals are often prepared and cooked three days before a flight, so Roth’s challenge was to chose ingredients that could sustain both taste and texture. For the same reason, meats and fish have to be cooked all the way through, he was told.
“And they would be reheated the same way all airline food is reheated, with the usual sheet of foil crimped over top.”
Fancy cocktails is one current popular trend, mentions Chris, which are available in economy class aboard several U.S. carriers.
Virgin America 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.
ABOARD AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 0342
The following is a description of food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith’s meal aboard Air France. Chris, who typically travels economy class, was eager to know how good airline food could actually get.
“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 flavorful, that lobster sauce was (unquestionably) delicious.”