Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek

Fine Dining at 35000 Feet

  1. Chefs' Creations

    Chefs' Creations

    In global airlines' scramble for the most premium amenities and cabin comforts to woo affluent customers, nowhere has the competition been as intense as the arms race in haute cuisine. Singapore Airlines, like other elite international carriers, has turned to celebrity chefs to help stay current with 1 Percenters' dining trends and dietary needs. For its daily, Airbus A380 flights this spring from New York's JFK to Frankfurt, which continue to Singapore, the airline turned to Alfred Portale, executive chef and co-owner of Gotham Bar & Grill in Manhattan. Portale's recipes were sent to Flying Food Group, a Chicago-based airline catering company, which scales the inspiration into meals that can be cooked commercially, stored, and then plated by Singapore's flight attendants according to Portale's instruction. In February 2011, the Manhattan chef joined Hermann Freidanck, a gregarious German chef who is also Singapore Airlines' longtime manager of food and beverage services, and Jacky Toh, a Flying Foods executive chef who oversaw the recreation of Portale's dishes, at Flying Foods' JFK facility for a food tasting and plating seminar. The event also touched on plate sizes, the perils of balsamic vinegar selection, and whether a smashed pea soup would be better served with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche (a less sour, sour cream made with butterfat).

    While there may be no airborne cooking for the lucky few in Singapore Airlines' premium cabins, Portale illustrates a few of the tricks of the airline cuisine trade in this photo essay. Think flavor and altitude—on the plate—for an idea of how tasty airplane food can be when cost isn't the only factor. With its "soup to nuts" dinner service, Singapore plans its two-hour, multicourse menu to be a satisfying sensory experience.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  2. Fresh Ingredients

    Fresh Ingredients

    With an annual food and beverage budget around $500 million, Singapore buys food from 52 "stations" around the world to produce 55,000 dishes each day. Maine lobster, caviar, and Wagyu beef are staples. Frozen vegetables are verboten unless fresh cannot be had. The salmon is no longer farmed, in most cases, but wild. The secret to success in making "airplane food" a restaurant-caliber dining experience lies with attention to detail. Sauces are not mixed, for example, long before they are served. The temperature of each plate's component ingredients is regulated closely. Foods are combined on the plate at altitude, not in a kitchen hours before departure.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  3. Following the Chef

    Following the Chef

    Toh is proud of the work his team performs in their gargantuan industrial kitchens, turning out the type of hearty, striking flavors normally produced by well-regarded restaurants in dining capitals. They do it for nearly 1,200 meals per day for Singapore Airlines' passengers and crew. Not every airline on Flying Foods' client roster requires adherence to a prominent chef's creations, but when one does, Toh is religious about his approximations and ingredients. Even if you haven't sat up at the plane's front, you may have tried some of Flying Foods' work closer to home: The company supplies food to more than 4,200 U.S. Starbucks (SBUX) outlets.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  4. Looking Good

    Looking Good

    Nearly as important as taste, the food's visual presentation is a prime concern for the airline. Well-heeled customers expect a certain level of refinement, whether it's the Givenchy china the airline uses or the chef selecting prime rib or Wagyu for a particular beef dish. Key to a good presentation is keeping foods separate during boarding--flight attendants assemble first and business-class courses individually for each passenger, including sauces. Dinner is nothing like the hot vs. cold, plastic tray and plastic-sheathed flatware that coach-class denizens will face.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  5. Say 'Cheese!'

    Say 'Cheese!'

    Singapore Airlines photographs each plated dish for a notebook that is stowed in the galley of each jet, to be consulted by premium-cabin crew members as they plate and finish each dish. For the February JFK tasting, a company accountant served as dish photographer.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  6. Lobster, of Course

    Lobster, of Course

    For the JFK flight, Portale chose roasted Maine lobster as one of his entrees, perched atop fingerling potatoes. The spuds, in turn, rest on a bed of fava beans, roasted corn kernels, and chanterelle mushrooms. A lobster sauce finishes the dish, while melted butter is drizzled atop the lobster. Toh has included a small pad of butter, the thinking being that the butter will dissolve over the seafood as the dish is heated. Portale looks perturbed. "OK?" Freidanck asks. "Or don't see the butter?" "I would hate to serve someone a cold piece of butter, unmelted, on the dish," Portale says quietly, a slab of chilled butter atop a lobster tail being both mortifying and completely avoidable in his opinion. Solution: The butter will be melted separately and drizzled by a flight attendant during plating.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  7. The Right Zing

    The Right Zing

    There's another trouble with the complex sauce deployed with the lobster—an astringent quality. "It has a sharpness, it's too much, and I don't think just drizzling olive oil is going to help," Portale says to the gathered chefs, all of whom are tasting the sauce. A balsamic vinegar is suspected. The kitchen's five types are quickly summoned, and Portale inspects them, tasting each. A suitable sample is identified, and one other is rejected as unfit for cooking. "Just don't use this one," Portale says of the offending vinegar. The lobster dish is plated, but Portale remains slightly chagrined by the sauce. He considers it a tad too thick. "I understand that you want to tighten it up, but maybe a little less olive oil?" he says to Freidanck. The sauce can be thinned.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  8. Get It Up

    Get It Up

    A fourth dish from Portale is a roast halibut fillet served with potato gnocchi, broccoli rabe, edamame beans, carrots, and leeks. Freidanck wonders if the potato gnocchi will reheat well. "We'll taste it and see," Portale says. "We can change it." The gnocchi takes the heat fine. The halibut dish also shows one of the attributes airlines prize for their cuisine: height. The wild mushrooms and shiso cress sit atop the fish, giving the dish an air of vertical sophistication. Perhaps only in Singapore Airlines' kitchens (one hopes) is the word volume also employed as a verb.

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  9. No Cooking

    No Cooking

    Freidanck, a former hotel chef from Germany, has been with Singapore Airlines for 17 years. His job is all about food budgets and testing kitchens and galley weights, helping to hunt for those places where the airline can counter the increasing cost of jet fuel. He flies around the world more than most people ever will, a chef whose job is to figure out the best ways for Singapore's most critical customers to eat well without the ability to cook for them. "You cannot cook. There is no open flame," Freidanck says. "Yeah, there is some heat, but you just cannot cook."

    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek
  10. Yum


    Portale displays the finished dishes. His four entrees for the A380 flights are tasted, plated, and photographed, and the Flying Foods staff has taken notes on the mandated tweaks from Portale and Freidanck. The upscale cuisine will be prepped for its mid-March debut when it takes flight to Germany—an in-flight amenity far more interesting than the movies.
    Andrew Burton for Bloomberg Businessweek