Gourmet dining has become an essential part of the in-flight experience, especially for business and first-class passengers.
More and more airlines have started working with Michelin-starred chefs to bring culinary expertise and finesse to their in-flight meals. One such airline is Singapore Airlines, whose in-flight menu was ranked the best first-class eats by readers of Saveur Magazine last year. Singapore Airlines was named the second-best airline in the world by leading aviation consumer website Skytrax in July 2015.
According to airline spokesman James Boyd, the airline invests around $500 million per year in its in-flight dining, more than $16 million of which goes toward their wine program.
We met with Chef Alfred Portale, executive chef of Michelin-starred Gotham Bar and Grill, who has been working with Singapore Airlines for about 11 years. He shared how he prepares dishes for first-class passengers, the difficulties of the process, and why you won’t see certain ingredients in your in-flight meals.
Portale currently works as the executive chef at New York City's Gotham Bar and Grill, which has a Michelin star, several three-star reviews from the New York Times, as well as various James Beard Awards. Portale personally won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef in 2006.
Portale has been creating in-flight dishes for Singapore Airlines for about 11 years, creating a roster of about 18 dishes twice annually. Singapore Airlines will then select a few of those dishes and switch them around every two months so that their frequent fliers can enjoy a rotating menu.
When it comes to the menu, Portale makes a point of including both healthy options, like salads packed with grains, and luxury items that range from lobster and king crab to truffles. Pictured here is the seafood salad that will be offered on the airline's in-flight menu later this year.
Portale will often turn to Gotham's menu for inspiration on his work for the airline. The seafood salad, for example, is a play on a similar dish at the restaurant -- it includes lobster, shrimp, octopus, and squid that is cooked, poached, and grilled before being combined with red and yellow peppers, avocado, and basil.
Next, it's topped with flying fish roe and a dressing that includes lemon, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. High acidity and increased seasoning in dishes is an important part of the process for Portale, since the lack of humidity at high elevation can dull one's taste buds.
Portale comes up with the dishes and teaches them to Singapore Airlines staff. During two-day training sessions, Portale will show the staff how to prepare and plate the dishes so that they can do the same at the airline's international facilities.
The ingredients are all combined in a bowl, a little salt is added, and they are mixed before being prepped for plating. Portale will often give the staff five to six fish substitutions to work with depending on the country they will be flying out from. Luckily, this particular dish doesn't need any substitutions.
The presentation is just as crucial as the ingredients. Portale will often consider making dishes that don't require many steps to plate. Singapore Airlines staff can reference a plating diagram that's been set up on the planes to give them step-by-step instructions to replicate the plating of a dish.
Each piece of seafood is carefully plated one by one before the avocado is added in. Finally, Portale will add some fresh frisée in and around the dish, and add a bit more dressing to the top. The dish is incredibly fresh, yet rich, with large portions of seafood that give a hearty bite alongside a bit of tartness to the dressing to maintain flavour.
For in-flight meals, the food will be cooked up to a certain point before being placed in a blast chiller, which essentially stops the cooking process. Next, the dishes are packed with dry ice until they are ready for serving. They are then placed in an oven on the plane to complete the cooking process before adding the final sauces and garnishes.
Certain substitutions have to be made when considering this process. Ingredients like butter sauces are often swapped out for stocks or a vinaigrette, since butter doesn't take well to the reheating process. Braises are a favourite though, since the meat is tender and the dish remains flavorful.
Portale introduced using a circulator to cook chicken, since circulators can help you control the temperature to an exact degree. This ensures a moist chicken, even when it is being made more than 150 times.
The second dish Portale prepared that will be available to passengers this year was derived from a cooking challenge he completed on 'Live! with Kelly and Michael', where he was told to create a meal around a secret ingredient, apples. He ended up making a pan-roasted chicken with caramelised apples, onions, and autumn vegetables.
After the chicken is cooked in the circulator, it comes out and is plunged in ice water. Next, a mix of caramelised apples and onions is added with Brussels sprouts, carrots, and butternut squash.
To create the sauce, the chicken is deglazed in the pan with white wine, stock, and mustard. To see how certain items will taste in-flight, Singapore Airlines' catering facility has a preservation room that can simulate cabin pressure.
Airlines will often use a specific type of chicken breast colloquially called 'airline chicken', which is essentially a chicken breast around 7 ounces in size that has a part of the wing attached.
After placing the chicken and vegetables on the plate, Portale garnishes it with a few herbs. At the Singapore Airline packing facilities, all hot ingredients are packed together, while cold ingredients are packed separately so that the staff can make final touches like this during the flight.
For Portale, getting dishes to taste as good in the air as they do on the ground is a learning process. He has often taken flights to test out how both his dishes and those of other chefs compare, and sometimes certain dishes just don't work. Still, Portale takes delight in the work. 'I love creating new dishes so for me, it's a process I really enjoy,' he said.
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