The worst thing about a long-haul flight is, without doubt, the food.
At best, the food is edible. At worst, it’s a scalding hot plastic tub of gloopy stew, overcooked rice or leathery meat and vegetables that have been boiled beyond all recognition.
Chef Gordon Ramsay is certainly no fan. He recently revealed he refuses to eat on planes, bringing his own spread to keep him going.‘I worked on airlines for ten years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board,’ he said. Ramsay, it must be acknowledged, has a vested interest in knocking in-flight cuisine. His restaurant, Plane Food, based in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, sells takeaway boxes designed to be eaten at 35,000ft.
Whether you sit in first or cattle class, the food comes from the same place: an industrial kitchen near the airport, where it’s cooked before take-off — then reheated on board.
In Europe, most meals come from Gate Gourmet in Switzerland or LSG Sky Chefs in Germany — serving more than 260 airlines.
Most of these industrial kitchens prepare around 25,000 meals a day; the world’s biggest, the Emirates Flight Catering Centre in Dubai, makes up to 170,000. That’s 58 million bread rolls, 4,300 tons of chicken and 3.6 tons of lobster a year. Peter Jones, a retired professor of travel catering from Surrey University, says one billion airline meals are consumed annually in an industry worth £10 billion a year.
‘The challenge isn’t the food,’ he says, ‘it is getting the food and the other items on board. A jumbo jet needs 40,000 separate items loaded every flight, sometimes in 90 minutes.’
DON’T BE FOOLED BY ‘FRESH’ — IT COULD BE 72 HOURS OLD
Despite stickers claiming it is ‘freshly prepared’, most plane food is produced long before it is served to passengers. Usually, the meals are made between 12 and 72 hours in advance. But, adds Prof Jones: ‘It can be kept in a chilled stage for five days under the internationally recognised food hygiene standards.’
Salads, desserts, bread rolls, plastic cutlery and napkins are put on trays in catering units on the ground and then stacked in trolleys ready to be wheeled down the cabin aisle.
Hot dishes are made in large industrial pans and decanted into plastic containers with foil lids before being ‘blast chilled’ to around 5C in 90 minutes.
BRING YOUR OWN SALT AND PEPPER
Conditions inside the plane dull our senses and make food and drink seem blander than normal.
Prof Barry Smith, of the Centre For The Study Of Senses at University of London, says: ‘The environment of an aircraft is about the most hostile to having a good dining experience that you could imagine.’
At 30,000 ft, humidity is less than 12 per cent: drier than most deserts. This dehydrates our nose, making it harder to smell food and appreciate its flavour, while low air pressure numbs our tastebuds.
A 2010 study at the Fraunhofer Institute For Building Physics showed our perception of saltiness falls by up to 30 per cent on a plane, while our sense of sweetness plummets by 20 per cent.
So even if a dish is perfectly cooked and seasoned on the ground, in the air it could be tasteless — meaning those little sachets of salt, pepper and even tabasco sauce could come in handy.