As anyone who has ever suffered through a gristly fish entree, gelatinous pasta salad or a soggy sandwich on a flight knows airlines have been responsible for some heinous crimes against gastronomy.
Fortunately, at least for those in business and first class, those days may soon be over. Some airlines have realized the need to provide better meals and they've enlisted the talents of the world's best chefs to help them do that.
Even the greatest chefs have to contend with some serious physical and environmental factors that cause appreciation of food to be diminished on planes, though. Dryness, pressure and noise all inhibit our ability to appreciate food on board.
At cruising altitude planes are typically pressurized to the equivalent of 2,400 metres (roughly the altitude of Telluride, Colo.) and, as Howard Hillman writes in his book, The New Kitchen Science, "cabin pressure decreases the volatility of the odorant molecules." Additionally, the extremely low levels of humidity have a dehydrating effect that further diminishes our sense of smell. By some estimates our ability to taste on a plane is reduced by a full 30 per cent.
Furthermore, according to a study conducted by Unilever and the University of Manchester, the airplane's engine noise is another major culprit. Higher noise levels, according to the study, decrease our appreciation of salty and sweet flavours and increase our sensitivity to crunchiness.
These findings are actually good news for anyone who appreciates, or wants to appreciate, inflight dining. A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones go a long way toward eliminating the harsh white noise of the engines and enable diners to focus on what's on the plate.
Best of all, particularly for business and first-class travellers, what's being served is better than ever. Airlines are taking their food and beverage offerings more seriously, collaborating with celebrity chefs and offering fresh, creative menus that would be as impressive in a fine restaurant as they are at 30,000 feet.
The celebrity chef trend began in the late 1990s when Australia's Qantas Airlines partnered with Neil Perry. For 15 years through his Rockpool Consulting company, Mr. Perry has overseen the entire flight catering component for the airline bringing his paddock-to-plate philosophy to bear on menus which change with each season. No more rubbery chicken or impenetrable stew here; a typical first-class menu might open with a Thai-style larb salad with squid and fried shallots in a galangal and lime dressing and close, several courses later, with hazelnut and coffee syrup cake with mascarpone and figs.
Not to be outdone, Air France, the national carrier for one of the world's most food-obsessed nations, raised the bar even higher by collaborating with Joel Robuchon, the world's most highly decorated chef (27 Michelin stars and counting). Business-class diners on Air France today can choose between Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemongrass; chicken breast in green curry sauce with poppyseed rice, carrots and shiitake mushrooms; and crayfish pasta with Nantua sauce.
In 2011 South African Airways enlisted the young star chef Reuben Riffel to contribute some of his signature dishes to their menu. His menus – pickled kingklip (a traditional South African specialty) with fennel créme and dhal, lamb rilette and sous-vide lamb loin with pink peppercorn – utilize local ingredients and reveal the cutting edge of contemporary South African cuisine.
At the beginning of this year, as part of its Star Chef program, Lufthansa began a collaboration with chefs from the Mandarin Oriental hotel group. First-class passengers are offered a five-course menu and business-class travellers get three courses. The program includes dishes such as Dungeness crab and avocado salad with lemongrass gazpacho dressing, and roast chicken with savoury bread pudding and tarragon jus.
American Airlines, which has its own celebrity chef consultant in Hawaiian author and television personality Sam Choy, recently announced that first- and business-class passengers on certain routes would be able to reserve their inflight meals online before they set foot on the plane.
In September, Qatar Airways announced the launch of its Culinary World menu. It assembled a kind of dream team of some of the world's best chefs: Nobu Matsuhisa, Ramzi Choueiri, Tom Aikens and Vineet Bhatia and tested their menu ideas in a pressurized catering facility. Designed to coincide with the arrival of the airline's first 787 Dreamliner, the menu items, including smoked tuna and ginger salad, balik salmon and foie gras with sweet and sour leeks and vanilla panna cotta with passion fruit sauce, are already being offered on some flights.
When asked about the challenges of creating a menu for Qatar, Lebanese chef Mr. Choueiri explained, "When you are flying at 35,000 feet you are closer to God so we had to design a menu that would live up to these divine expectations."