The first-class meal served on board an Emirates flight.
The first-class meal served on board an Emirates flight.

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Gourmet food on flights is a lie, it’s made by third-rate chefs

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about in-flight food, and how if you’re smart, you’d be better off packing your own parathas instead of the third-rate drivel they serve.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 09, 2017 09:14 AM IST

So, airline food is back in the news. Air India has been under fire over the last month. The furore was caused by the airline’s decision to refuse to serve non-vegetarian meals to economy class passengers. (I can already see the advertising. “In first class you are a Maharajah. In economy you are a sadhu. Fly Air-India and respect Hindu traditions”.)

Then, some papers reported that Jet was heading in the same direction. The special meals it had always offered were now being slowly withdrawn. And some economy class passengers complained that they had been told that there would be no non-vegetarian meal for them. (While all this was being reported, the Indian railways turned the experience on its head, serving non-vegetarian food to unsuspecting vegetarians -- a lizard was found in a bowl of rice. But there is another story!)

I think the all-vegetarian decisions are just silly. Jet, which is now vastly profitable, has no excuse. And Air-India, which owes thousands of crores to public sector banks (not because of sloppy operations but because of extravagant and ill-advised aircraft purchases) has no business denying a choice to its passengers on the flimsy grounds that it will save Rs 10 crore by serving sadhu-meals.

But, even when airlines do offer choices, the food is rarely any good. Forget, for a moment, the glamour of airline advertising where beautiful women saunter down an aisle serving lobster to gleeful first-class passengers and focus on the reality.

Think, first of all, about what an aeroplane is really like. Basically, it is not a restaurant, as the ads would have you believe, but is a bus that happens to fly. So all space is limited. And because airlines make their money by loading their planes with as many passengers as possible, they are reluctant to allot much space to toilets (this is why airplane loos are so tiny) or kitchens.

The average aircraft galley, which serves at least 60 to 70 passengers, is much smaller than your kitchen at home. Even in business class, the galley is as tiny though admittedly, it services a smaller number of passengers than the economy class galleys.

When you travel by bus, do you expect to get gourmet meals on board? Of course you don’t. If it is a long journey, you pack your own sandwiches, parathas or whatever.

So it is with airlines. Is it realistic to expect these tiny kitchens, staffed usually by crew with no catering experience, to conjure up food that is of any great quality?

Why then, do we even waste time talking about airline food? Well, because, over the years, airlines have encouraged us to focus on in-flight meals. Food features prominently in most airline advertising. And many brag about the great chefs who have devised their menus. Both British Airways and Singapore Airlines have special panels of celebrity chefs who are allegedly in charge of in-flight cuisine and many other airlines push the “gourmet food” promise.

So, does Gordon Ramsay (for British Airways) or Rick Perry (for Qantas) come on board on each flight and cook for you? No, of course he doesn’t. (Celebrity chefs don’t even cook at their own restaurants these days.) Does he send his chefs on your flight? (Nopes.) Does he at least get the food cooked in his restaurant before it is loaded on to your plane? (Once again: don’t be silly. Of course he doesn’t.)

In fact, no matter how many big-name chefs an airline brags about, the food is nearly always cooked in the same way to the same dismal standards.

The great secret of on-board cuisine is that every airline, no matter what the advertising says, gets its food from the same kitchens. Each city has only a handful of flight kitchens, often run by hotel/catering chains and they make the same sort of food for every flight.

In Delhi, for instance, there are only four or five flight kitchens of consequence (Taj, Oberoi, Ambassador, Sky Gourmet, etc.) and they cook the food for nearly every airline that flies out of Indira Gandhi airport. It is the same in Bombay and in every major city in the world.

So, when you are told that Gordon Ramsay designed the menu, what it means is this: Ramsay sent a recipe to flight kitchens all over the world, which was executed by scores of anonymous chefs, many of whom have never heard of Ramsay. Once they cooked this so-called Ramsay dish (hundreds of portions, all done at the same time), it was packed and transported to an airline which loaded it on a plane. Many hours later – sometimes 12 to 14 hours later – some steward, with no interest in catering, put it in an oven, reheated it and placed it in front of a passenger.

Gourmet food it ain’t.

I don’t know if you have ever been to a flight kitchen. But my advice is: don’t go. It is a vast soulless, industrial space where many, largely untalented chefs, work in factory-like conditions to churn out vast quantities of food at low cost. Though sometimes good chefs are posted there (the Taj sent the great Satish Arora and Arvind Saraswat to its flight kitchen when they were past retirement), the overwhelming majority of flight kitchen chefs are people who are not good enough to be posted in top restaurant kitchens.

So your food is made in a factory by second to third-rate chefs, few of whom care about the refinement of flavours, and then served to you, usually after being inexpertly reheated, a long time later.

Are you surprised that the chicken tastes like Styrofoam? That the mutton consists of dry chewy chunks of indeterminate origin? That the biryani has been burned in the reheating? That the custard in the pudding has the taste and consistency of congealed vomit?

What makes it worse is that airlines pay as little as they possibly can for each meal. Why is the food on Vistara is better (in relative terms) than the food on, say, Jet Airways, even if both have used the same flight kitchen? (In this case: the Taj flight kitchen.) Well, because Vistara pays more for meals than Jet or Air India. It is as simple as that.

There was a time when, as disgusting as the economy-class food was, you did get better quality meals in first class or even business class.

No longer.

Airlines don’t tell you this but usually, they serve the same food in Economy and Business. The difference is that you will get a small portion, served as part of a meal-on-a-tray in Economy while, in Business, they will fancy up the presentation. The portions will be larger. The meal will be served in courses. (Though not on Air-India which mysteriously refuses to upgrade its business class meal service and serves everything on one tray.)

You may get a choice of an extra main course option. If you are in Singapore Airlines they will give you a satay stick as an amuse-bouche or a pre-dinner snack.

But that is about it.

Most airlines have severely curtailed the number of first-class seats on offer and the difference between business class and first is no longer that great. But, in terms of food, the same make-it-cheap principle applies.

There was a time when, if you travelled Air India first class, they let you have as much caviar as you wanted. There was pate de Foie Gras on the lunch trolley. The smoked salmon was of good quality. As long as you ate the cold starters and then the curry afterwards and washed it down with good wine (hard as this is to believe now, there was a time when Air India’s first class champagne was Dom Perignon), you felt you had had a first-class experience. Now, the caviar etc. have all gone, first class is down to a row or two per flight and the food is not much better than the swill served to economy-class passengers.

Much the same is true of other airlines. The late Michael Winner, the film director who wrote about food, once got into a slanging match with Willie Walsh, the Chief Executive of British Airways about how the airline had surreptitiously reduced the quantities of caviar on some flights while removing it entirely from first class on most sectors. It sounds like a small thing but remember that the British Airways first-class fare from London to Los Angeles is around Rs 8 lakh. For that price, they should pull out all the stops.

So, if even first-class meals are the subject of penny-pinching, then what should the average passenger do?

Well, I don’t eat on planes if I can help it. Sometimes I have no choice so I force myself to eat the garbage they serve up. But if I remember well in time, then I pack my own food.

It is a strategy we should all consider.

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