Catering to the airline passenger palate is a daunting culinary task. There are numerous, well-documented reasons for the notoriety of plane cuisine: For one, cabin pressure and dryness affect the taste and smell senses, dulling flavor profiles like sweet and salty.
Then there are the myriad logistical challenges of getting hundreds of meals prepared, packaged, and plated aboard a plane that may be in the air for as long as 17 hours. As anyone who has taken home leftover spinach salad to find it wilted and inedible only a few hours later can attest, some dishes simply don’t travel well.
Singapore Airlines, however, is changing popular opinion about what has generally been considered possible when it comes to dining at 30,000 feet. The airline’s approach to in-air fare is less TV dinner, more “farm to tray table”—and it’s setting a new standard for the industry.
To provide a quality in-flight dining experience, Singapore Airlines combines science and creative problem-solving. The airline goes to great lengths to develop ethnically inspired dishes like chili crab and pork tenderloin, and to serve beverages like fresh-squeezed orange juice in its first-class cabin.
The airline also has a serious commitment to quality control—and decades of experience in honing the process into an art form. Hermann Freidanck has served as the airline’s head of food and beverage for more than 20 years, and has worked to implement advancements in both the laboratory and the kitchen.
Today, Freidanck explains, the airline’s menu prep process works like this: Menu planning is conducted in Singapore, led by a team of chefs and advised by a council of internationally acclaimed experts who tweak menus based on en vogue culinary trends. Once a recipe has been rigorously stress-tested and perfected, Singapore Airlines contracts out the preparation process to caterers around the world. These entities are in charge of mastering menu presentation and securing the necessary ingredients; if a dish requires lobster, for example, the caterers must procure local lobster from trusted vendors.
Based on the regions the airline serves, the chefs devising the menu focus on four main types of cuisine: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western. “Our philosophy is to never take a one-menu-fits-all approach,” explains Freidanck. “For us, it’s very important that our menus are destination-specific. This means, what is on the menu is relevant to the sector we are flying to: America, Europe, Australia, Asia, Japan, and so on.”
Careful consideration is given, too, to global dining rituals and preferences. “Asian dining styles differ from what one would find in the West, where you have a starter, a soup, a main course, and then cheese and dessert,” explains Freidanck. In Japan, for example, meals are often arranged by preparation style—pickled, fried, grilled, etc., and in China you’ll find meals hosted around a large table, with a range of dishes presented simultaneously from a lazy susan.
Designing an aircraft cabin to accommodate a lazy susan is impractical, so Singapore Airline’s team must get creative. The airline tweaks its serving methods to accommodate such dining customs.
“What we have done is taken a ten-course meal and split it apart into different, individual dishes, so you get a service sequence of different courses, which we then present to the passenger,” says Freidanck. “It’s quite complicated, but very specific to certain cultures and destinations where we fly.”
When it comes to combating the sensory-sapping effects of cabin pressure, Singapore Airlines leaves little to chance. Menu items are often sampled in a pressurized chamber that replicates in-flight conditions. Then, the chefs adjust the recipe—adding seasoning, cutting back on oil, or even reimagining the wine list—based on these taste tests. The menu planning process allows the airline to change the menus every two months, ensuring that meal selections are new and interesting for frequent travelers.
The biggest difference between a meal in a restaurant and the dining experience on an airplane is immediacy. In a restaurant, explains Freidanck, the chef is able to taste-test while cooking—he or she has ultimate control of the kitchen. In the airline industry, there are a lot more variables at play.
“Of course, we have the problem that the food has to be cooked on the ground, and then the dish is basically deconstructed into its component parts,” Freidanck says. The meal must be transported, reheated, and then reassembled according to specific plating guidelines. Freidanck refers to this process as “uplift mode”—i.e. how the dish will be put on the plane for the crew to prepare. Practicalities such as what type of packaging will keep the prawns separate from the rice before they’re meant to be mixed must be taken into account.
This process also involves a bit of math: How many bowls of soup will be served on a flight to San Francisco, and how many passengers are on each leg of each flight? Because the amount of food on each flight must be factored into every leg of the journey for purposes of fuel efficiency and overall procedure, it’s particularly important to get these equations right.
Over the course of his time with the company, Freidanck has seen the technology that facilitates in-flight dining evolve exponentially: chillers that rapidly cool hundred-pound balls of spaghetti, for example, without sacrificing uniform texture of the pasta; reheating methods that don’t dry out food; and coffee machines that enable passengers to enjoy a morning latte that might as well have come from a beloved corner bistro. Convection technology may one day make it possible to actually cook meals on board—though, Freidanck adds, these methods are still in the very early stages of development.
When it comes down to it, airline food, says Freidanck, doesn’t always deserve its reputation as bland or boring. “Airline food does not have to be powdered, or a big ball of unidentifiable mush,” he says. “The right recipe, the right process, and attention to detail make all the difference.”
With a dash of inventiveness, fine-dining in the skies is not just a possibility—it’s a fine-tuned science.
This article was produced on behalf of Singapore Airlines by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.