As regular travellers know all too well, comfort levels on a flight can actually make or break an entire trip. And as more and more of us get the opportunity to take to the skies, airlines are being critiqued almost as sharply as restaurants or hotels.
As the competition hots up, the quality of onboard dining is now one of the deciding factors when it comes to choosing a carrier, so airlines are scrambling to upgrade their culinary offerings in hopes of reeling in more flyers.
Qatar Airways, voted Airline of the Year last year and again this year in the Skytrax Global Survey, has long been a player in this fine-dining race.
With the unveiling of its latest initiative, however, it looks they've rolled out the big guns. Four world-renowned chefs were picked to conjure up the "Qatar Airways Culinary World Menu" which has been served to the airline's business- and first-class passengers network-wide since Sept 1.
"We always choose the best, and the best of the best. We believe in raising the bar in service," said Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways. "As a truly global airline, we understand that beyond superior service, travellers also want to enjoy the journey of discovery, exploring new tastes and cuisines." In a bid to offer a truly representative gastronomic experience, Qatar Airways' "culinary dream team" includes Michelin-star winners, award-winning cookery book authors, TV presenters and well-known restaurateurs from around the globe.
Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa hardly needs an introduction. With 29 restaurants in 25 cities across five continents, the Japanese chef has become an inspirational figure for many Asians although his creations for Qatar Airways lean heavily towards Japanese cuisine.
Probably best known for his appearance on Iron Chef UK, Tom Aikens, the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars, represents European cuisine, while exotic Indian delights have Vineet Bhatia, the only Indian chef ever to win two Michelin stars, bringing out the spices.
Speaking for the Arabic culinary arts is Ramzi Choueiri, one of the most recognised chefs in the Middle East, who hosts a daily cooking show and gets a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for having prepared the largest-ever servings of hummus, tabbouleh and falafel.
Chicken mousakhan with apricot sauce, one of Ramzi Choueiri’s signature dishes.
"I fly very often, and I usually see shortcomings when it comes to airplane food. I think passengers are looking for comfort food, something to relate to, when they are onboard without phones," said Bhatia.
"Personally, I like light meals when flying, so my menu is very light, presenting different choices. I hope that the passengers think of it as good meals that come with plane tickets," Nobu added.
All the chefs were in agreement, though, that airplanes can pose challenges and limitations when it comes to fine dining. They must take the altitude, preparation space available, time restrictions and human resources into account before coming up with a classy menu that's appropriate to the situation.
"I take things from my restaurant and simplify them, while still maintaining the quality. The preparation needs to be simplified and you need to calculate how many moves the crew have to do before serving. Three moves would be too much already," Aikens said.
"Also, the taste buds are affected by the altitude. They become enhanced, so you need to take flavour profiles into serious considerations." All of the participating chefs are hoping to recruit new fans among the airline's diverse clientele for the cuisine in which they specialise.
"For me, this is a traditional menu presented in a new way, but I'm not aiming for just Arabic travellers," said Choueiri. "I've toned down the aggressive tastes as well as moderated the flavours to accommodate, but it's still very Arabic."
In an era of increasingly cut-throat competition, some airlines have reportedly considered recruiting chefs for their first- and business-class sections to prepare short-order meals on board in a more personalised setting. But the idea doesn't appeal to Qatar Airways, according to its CEO.
"Bringing chefs onto the planes is just a gimmick. They're doing the same jobs [as cabin crews], but at double the salary. That would create discontent and Qatar would never allow that," said Al Baker.
Nobu’s black cod with lemon.
Asked why the new celebrity-chef menu is not extended to economy class, the CEO was quick to respond.
"We want to differentiate. But we never forget about our economy-class travellers as we present them with three choices, and our portions are large," he said.
With the team assembled and strategy in place, each of the chefs has created his signature dishes and these will be served on a rotating basis. On my way back from Doha recently, lounging on a seat that converts to a fully flat bed, I had the chance to try two of Nobu's dishes: black cod with lemon and teriyaki chicken on rice.
Needless to say, his creations were incredibly tasty, and possibly as close to restaurant quality as dining in the sky can ever be.
"I really want to hear back from the passengers," he said. "If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. I'm trying to create foods that are as close as possible to my restaurant quality. I'm relying on travellers for feedback."
About the author
- Writer: Onsiri Pravattiyagul
Position: Entertainment Editor