Is Cathay Pacific’s Business-Class Food All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
Restaurant food has improved immeasurably over the past 30 years. So how come our expectations of airline meals are so low, even when we (or our companies) pay thousands of dollars for a seat?
There are a few obvious reasons. Everyone knows an aircraft is not a friendly environment for cooking or eating. Flight attendants work in tiny galleys heating meals prepared on the ground, primarily. Plus, passengers' taste buds take a nap in pressurized cabins high in the air.
Still, some airborne food is tasty. It's possible to do it well. Most airlines just don't.
One of the fliers that has a reputation for accomplishing this rare feat is Cathay Pacific Airways. Because in general our experience with plane food is so bad, the media response to Cathay's food is overwhelmingly glowing—almost euphoric. (Online customer reviews are predictably more mixed.) My own personal best memory of an airline meal was on Cathay. So, since I am a restaurant critic, I decided to take a recent trip from London to Melbourne (via Hong Kong) as an opportunity to check in on how the brand was doing, the way I might brush up on a classic ground establishment like Le Gavroche. I was flying business class and had a lie-flat bed, so I was prepared to be comfortable and experience the best of what the airline had to offer. Even before takeoff from Heathrow, I had a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Champagne and a feeling of well-being as I studied the movie options. Things were looking up.
Here's what happened after that.
Lunch started with smoked salmon with capers, onion and parsley, and chive creme fraiche. The oiliness of the fish should wake up those taste buds. But the logistics of onboard catering make it difficult to get the temperature right for fish. Let it warm up nicely and you might get bacteria dancing like a disco. So I got it overly cold—fine. Maybe the Chinese food will be good on a Hong Kong airline?
The main course of Sichuan chicken with yu huang chili sauce, steamed rice, and Shanghainese bok choy with chili and ginger was better. I love Sichuan cuisine: It's fiery and complex with layers of heat and flavor. But most of the power here came from the chili sauce on the side. Rather than an epicurean delight, the dish tasted more like something I'd get from my local Chinese takeaway. Satisfying but not special.
Feeling like Woody Allen, I was still hungry and wanted more food. I asked for another dish: paccheri with zucchini, eggplant, and tomato. I wouldn't say it was rubbery, necessarily, but it featured hints of Bridgestone, Goodyear, and Pirelli. Michelin was the only tiremaker notably absent.
The cheese plate—Lye Cross Mature Cheddar, Pave d'Affinois, Cropwell Bishop Stilton—was surprisingly good, though again too chilled. The mango passion fruit cream cake with mixed berry compote was OK: just the kind of sweet thing we've gotten used to in the air, as it requires no preparation on board.
All this isn't bad, but remember Cathay is one of the world's top seven or eight airlines, according to Skytrax, the U.K. consultancy that measures these things. (The others are ANA All Nippon Airways; Asiana Airlines; Garuda Indonesia; Hainan Airlines; Qatar Airways; and Singapore Airlines. Malaysia Airlines' status is under review.) Cathay Pacific receives four stars from Skytrax for its onboard meals in business class, making it one of the best in the air. Air France and Virgin Atlantic also have four; British Airways and United Airlines have three apiece.
"Taste, authenticity and freshness of our in-flight meals are essential," the Cathay Pacific website says. "Our menus, featuring a wide range of cuisines from around the world, are carefully prepared to give our passengers a choice of meals to suit their needs."
In January, the airline announced a yearlong partnership with chefs from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group to design menus for first-class passengers on flights between Hong Kong and London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Boston.
I used to fly Cathay Pacific regularly when I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s. The food didn't seem bad then. On one flight, I so much enjoyed a dish of green pepper stuffed with rice, I asked my neighbor for hers, which she hadn't touched. The crunch, the spices, I still remember them. The flight attendant said she'd have given me another if I'd only asked. But that would have been a bit Oliver Twist, don't you think?
The more recent meal on the flight to Hong Kong from London turned out to be one of the better ones on Cathay flights I took over the last month. The low point was a Margherita pizza served from Hong Kong to Melbourne. It was so misconceived, I should have walked out. (It's tricky getting the doors open on planes.)
To say the dough was chewy doesn't quite capture how bad it was. The topping sat in a puddle in the middle and was scorched around the edges. The flavor was of flour and melted cheese. It was like they included all the ingredients of pizza, but withdrew the happiness. Even the microwave slices that 7-Eleven sold in Hong Kong in 1983 were better.
The other low was the grilled Australian grain-feed beef fillet with jus, roasted kipfler potatoes, green beans, and peperonata served from Melbourne to Hong Kong. The meat was so overcooked and dried out, consuming it was more like a stretching exercise than a dining experience. An animal had died in vain! This was two pop songs in one: Tragedy and Fade to Grey. The gravy was very good: rich and meaty like my business-class chums.
Don't think I'm forgetting you folks at the back. I'm there with you often enough, trying to eat rice from a small dish and pouring a mini-bottle of sauvignon blanc into a plastic container that may snap while squeezed when the passenger in front decides to recline. I've measured out my flights with (synthetic) coffee spoons.
On Alitalia a few years back, I was served a sandwich so poor, I asked the attendant what was in it. She didn't know. On British Airways in 2011, flying first class, I was served a meal for which I reckon the airline should have paid compensation. (I wouldn't have minded but I'd paid to upgrade.)
The star dish of the trip last month was dim sum, served en route to Melbourne. The pork-and-chive dumpling was translucent and light; the shrimp dumpling was soft and juicy with a hint of sweetness; the pork shumai with scallop had just the right balance of sweetness and salt.
And while I am being nice, the smoked salmon with marinated prawn, asparagus, and Pommery mustard mayonnaise, served on the way back to London, was moist and flaky and a step up from the smoked salmon out of London. Again, the cheese plate was an improvement on the generic selections of years gone by.
I pondered all this on the flights because I traveled to Melbourne to meet Heston Blumenthal. The British chef looked into airline food for a TV program in 2011 and advised British Airways to focus on umami-rich ingredients such as Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. I'm not sure his advice was heeded.
As taste is suppressed in the air, bigger flavors are needed: hearty soups, peppery casseroles, spicy curries—and ice cream works, too.
The food—usually noodles—in Cathay Pacific lounges was very good, and I guess that is the point: Airlines can feed us better and more conveniently on the ground than in the air.
But I am rarely jaded when boarding an aircraft. I didn't fly until my mid-20s and I am just catching up with the rest of you. I still find it fun, and lament that security concerns have taken much of the joy out of flying. Once on board, the most exciting thing that happens is being served a meal. It would be a loss if we all ended up eating on the ground and spending our time in the air making calls on mobile phones.
I'm taking a break in France this month and have decided to take the train on the way out. I'm returning (from Dinard) with Ryanair, a flight that has cost me just 32.99 euros ($36.99), including fare, taxes, fees, and charges. I'll buy a sandwich before I hop onboard, and be happy with it. We all know that airline costs are under pressure in an era of cheap flights.
But when passengers trade up to business or first class, they should hope for a special treat. After all, they've managed to make chairs into beds up there.
If not delicious, meals should be at least as comforting as the seats.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.