Would you choose an airline based on its menu?
Pan-seared scallops, artichoke sauce with white truffle, crisp polenta and sugar snap peas.
If that sounds like the kind of meal you’d get at a Michelin-starred restaurant, you’re not wrong.
But instead of the soft tones of violins or pianos, the soundtrack to this meal comprises jet engine roars and requests to fasten your seatbelt.
They’re items from the menu Air France began serving to select business class passengers from February this year.
Michel Roth is the latest Michelin-starred chef working with Air France to provide the highest paying passengers with quality cuisine.
He follows in the footsteps of fellow Frenchmen Joel Robuchon and Guy Martin.
“It’s not about a gimmick or outdoing your competitors,” says Godwin Mak, marketing and communications manager, Air France and KLM. “It’s about keeping your customer satisfied.”
It’s one of the ways airlines are now trying to woo and retain their most valuable passengers.
KLM World Business Class has employed top international chef and culinary director at Michelin star Amber restaurant in Hong Kong, Richard Ekkebus.
Last year before the London Olympics, British Airways launched an in-flight menu for first and business class created by Heston Blumenthal and Michelin-star chef Simon Hulstone.
Customers expect more
“Customers are becoming increasingly discerning when it comes to in-flight food, and expect the very best from airlines, particularly full-service carriers like us,” says Mark Tazzioli, British Airways menu design manager.
In spite of the challenges to designing and preparing elaborate menus for consumption at high altitude, the trend seems here to stay.
“Everyone has a strong opinion about airline food,” says Ekkebus. “But few people are aware that they encounter a loss of 20% of their five taste buds when eating a meal at over 10,000 feet.
“This is the main reason people find food bland and tasteless on planes. These challenges are what makes it so interesting to get involved; to try to find a way to overcome them.”
He tries to overcomes the issue by working with concentrated flavors, herbs and spices.
There are limitations.
“All food needs to fit on small plates and needs to be prepared, then properly cooled down to ensure it can be kept until it can be reheated safely,” Ekkebus says.
It’s important to ensure that what you want to achieve is realistic, he adds.
“Dishes need to please a broad spectrum of passengers, with cultural, religious, dietary and taste differences.”
British Airways' Tazzioli also acknowledges challenges with designing menus to be eaten on a plane.
“We challenged Heston (Blumenthal) to come up with the ultimate in-flight dish, the taste of which wouldn’t be compromised by cabin pressure, low humidity and high altitude’s effects on taste buds,” he says.
One of Blumenthal’s recommendations was to use ingredients high in umami, a savory flavor known as the “fifth taste,” which occurs naturally in foods such as seaweed, tomatoes, mackerel and parmesan cheese.
There's a chance those in economy class could benefit.
“We will partner with chefs on a selective basis where we think this adds value for our customers. This could apply to any class of travel,” says Tazzioli.
Economy improves too
KLM and Air France are among the growing number of airlines that now provide more up-market options for their economy-class passengers.
You can order from an a la carte menu prior to traveling -- at an additional cost of course.
“This option has proven to be very popular,” Mak says. “We offer a three-course meal including entrée, main and dessert on most intercontinental flights.”
Ekkebus is in favor of airlines providing more quality dining options in coach.
“This could be done by other food professionals, not only by Michelin-starred chefs,” he says. “I think every chef has the ability to bring a fresh perspective, to bring innovation to airline menus.”
Can food be enough to entice business travelers?
David Hughes, a frequent corporate traveler, says he can’t imagine a situation where he would pick an airline based on the food.
“The main choice parameters for me are; safety, schedule, price, comfort and frequent flyer program -- being treated as ‘special,’” he says.
Hughes does concede that employing celebrity chefs can show the airline is “doing everything it can to treat you special, and we're investing in you by splashing out on chefs who know what they're talking about.”
Ekkebus says customer feedback indicates they’re enjoying the fine dining experience.
The response to British Airway’s umami menus has also been extremely positive according to Tazzioli.
Would you choose an airline based on its menu? Leave a comment.