Yes, you can make airline food taste good, according to the executive chef of New York’s Michelin-starred Gotham Bar and Grill. The secret? “Aggressive seasoning.” And sauce. Lots and lots of sauce.
Every six months, Singapore Airlines tasks Alfred Portale, a multiple-time James Beard Award winner, to invent new recipes for its first-class cabins, where a seat from New York to Singapore can cost $7,500—one-way.
Before the Gotham Bar and Grill’s kitchen opened for lunch recently, Quartz watched as Portale presented a half dozen new creations to three chefs for Singapore Airlines and its kitchen, who would pick the best for an upcoming menu. Dressed in chef’s whites, they took photos of each dish and silently jotted down notes on clipboards after every few bites.
“They kind of play their cards very close to the chest,” Portale said.
Portale is one of nine chefs around the world that sit on Singapore Airlines’ International Culinary Panel to create dishes for top-paying flyers. Others include Zhu Jun, executive chef of Shanghai’s Jade Garden, and Carlo Cracco, chef of the two-Michelin starred Cracco in Milan. The three chefs travel around the world to each of the panel’s restaurants to taste the dishes. (Possibly eating the current menu, if they get to go first class.)
On planes, because open flames are prohibited on board, dishes must be cooked in advance and reheated—often with a convection, steam or microwave oven—and chefs have to choose cuts that won’t dry out. That means using fattier fishes, like salmon or halibut instead of flounder. Portale chooses thick cuts of meat that are are often braised or cooked in a broth to keep the protein moist. One of his favorites is slow-cooked pork.
“We came up with a dish that I thought was decidedly American,” Portale said of one of the items on his submission list. “It’s a pork tenderloin, but like a filet mignon. It’s very soft, even if it’s cooked medium… with a sweet and sour apricot puree.” (It costs $44 for his pork chop at sea level at his restaurant.)
Postale said he has liked some creations meant for Singapore Airlines so much he added them to his own restaurant’s menu, such a smoked trout salad.
It isn’t easy to make reheated food taste good in any case, let alone on a plane. Even with plush blankets and amenity kits, airplane cabins are notoriously dry and air pressure is low. That dulls passengers’ sense of smell and makes food taste bland. Sugar and salt are harder for flyers to detect in the air, research has shown.
So Singapore Airlines and other carriers pull out all the stops for the high-paying customers at the front of the aircraft. Meals in Qatar Airways’ premium cabins are designed by Nobu Matsuhisa, Qantas works with Australia’s Neil Perry, and Daniel Boulud creates meals for Air France. One of the world’s best chefs, Heston Blumenthal, struggled with this himself for British Airways’ passengers, concluding that dishes with the celebrated flavor of umami would work best at 35,000 ft.
Singapore Airlines says it trains its flight attendants for about four months so they get service just right—three times longer than the industry average. “While cabin crew are fantastic at service, they’re not chefs,” a Singapore Airlines spokesman notes.
We can’t help you get an upgrade to the front of the plane, but we do have a trick to make your tiny bottle of wine taste better: try shaking it.