Besides likening themselves to cattle shoved into an airborne metal tube, there’s nothing passengers like to complain about more than how terrible aeroplane food is. But how and where those disappointing in-flight meals get made is rarely thought of.
United Airlines recently let our cameras into its catering facility, Chelsea Food Services, near Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Surprisingly, the food we saw was super fresh, made entirely by hand, and meticulously planned in advance. Another shocker? The airline’s newest menu additions are actually pretty good.
Keep scrolling to see all of the work that goes into the making of your in-flight meals, and to find out about the shocking waste that occurs when your flight is delayed.
Welcome to United's Chelsea Food Services facility, where a team of 1,000 produces 33,000 meals per day.
Absolutely everyone is required to wear a hair net, and most wear lab coats. To our eyes, the facility was spotlessly clean.
It's hard to tell in this photo, but the hot kitchen is actually quite small for the amount of work it has to accommodate. You'll see this better in another photo taken from outside the kitchen.
The trick to aeroplane food is to only cook it halfway. Steak, for example, is cooked 30% of the way. The final cook is done onboard in the aircraft's convection ovens.
A common misconception is that planes have microwaves. Convection ovens, which use fans to push the heat, are faster and can cook items at a lower temperature.
Items that do not need to be cooked, like this fruit salad, are made outside the hot kitchen. Fresh produce is delivered multiple times a day.
We asked about how many produce deliveries the facility gets a day, but they told us it happens so frequently that they can't even count!
Here's a view from outside the hot kitchen. It looks pretty small when you consider that 33,000 meals come out of that space every day.
The facility must also supply flight attendants with the tools they need to prepare and serve the meals.
Everything the flight attendants could possibly need (think: tongs, ice scoopers) are niftily packed in an oven mitt.
The precise amount of servingware that each flight needs is planned and packed in these metal bins far in advance.
Which is to arrange the trays. Pictures on the walls show employees how to arrange food and what the final product should look like.
Completed trays are put into the same food carts you see onboard the plane. Each one is labelled with its flight number.
Once the carts have been loaded, they're moved to an even colder room to be blast-chilled. This room is kept at a frosty 38 degrees; the people who work here wear heavy winter coats.
Here's the shocker: Meals can't sit for more than six to eight hours before boarding a plane. If a flight is delayed for more than a couple of hours, all of its meals could get thrown out and replaced. Not only is the food wasted, but employees have to work overtime to get the new food ready.
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