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Steaks on a plane Following your United Airlines meal from the kitchen to the clouds

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About an hour before United Airlines Flight 40 departed for Rome, two trucks sidled up to the aircraft parked at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The vehicles’ cargo compartments extended to the open cabin doors. Several men in neon safety vests hopped out pushing metal carts.

In less time than it takes to peel a bag of potatoes, the catering crew filled the plane’s three galleys with a multi-course culinary feast. The entrees  filet of Amazon cod with vegetable ratatouille, short rib of beef with wasabi grits, chana masala with aloo ginger garlic rice read like specials at a high-end restaurant. Nowhere on the menu: tongue de shoe drowning in a mud puddle.

“There was a day when we had mystery meat covered in sauce to keep it moist,” said Gerry McLoughlin, one of the airline’s executive chefs. “That day is gone.”

At United, as well as across the industry, in-flight dining has sprouted new wings  and they don’t taste like overprocessed chicken. Not so long ago, airplane food was a punching bag cinched with a punchline. In a 2009 letter to Virgin Atlantic owner Richard Branson, an aggrieved customer compared the experience of removing the tinfoil covering his meal to opening a Christmas present and finding a dead hamster inside.

The laugh track lost its chuckle more than a decade ago when airlines started to phase out free economy-class meals on domestic flights. The companies distracted hungry passengers with elfin bags of peanuts and buy-your-own boxes of grub. However, airlines’ increasing focus on personalized service combined with an expanding awareness of global cuisine has reversed the decline. Is that a bird, plane . . . or a spiced-rub breast of chicken on a 747?

“The food definitely has an opportunity to improve,” said McLoughlin, who is also the company’s senior manager of food and beverage planning. “Before, it was entertainment and a way to keep passengers in their seats. Now, it is about customer experience.”

Every six to 15 months, for example, McLoughlin and his team of chefs refresh the menus for all cabin categories. (United provides free meals on most long-haul flights; economy passengers pay within North America, the Caribbean, some of Latin America, and between Honolulu and Guam.) On Oct. 25, the company unveiled dishes for its BusinessFirst cabin (duck confit ravioli, mushroom ragout, semi-dried tomatoes and sauteed asparagus, for instance) on select routes. In addition, United will roll out a second wave of dishes on Nov. 1 for various destinations and cabin classes, including new choices for economy. Among the options: Napa salad with grilled salmon, goat cheese and figs (premium class), and a French country-style bowl with slow-cooked beef, roasted carrots, onions, parsnips and white rice (coach). And for dessert (premium-only again), cookies baked onboard, ice cream or sorbet — to cleanse the palate for the return flight home.

“We want to board enough choices so that everyone can have their dream dish,” said the Irish chef, whose fantasy in-flight meal is roast leg of lamb with mint sauce.

In a conventional restaurant setting, such ambitious menus are hardly surprising. But airlines must contend with a steady stream of obstacles from the ground up, up, up. For instance, dining rooms typically don’t bounce or dry out customers’ taste buds.

To better understand United’s food operations, I slipped on a white lab coat and hair net (hot pink!) for a behind-the-scenes peek at its Newark kitchen and catering facility. Moving from station to station, I watched the airline meal proceed from conception to consumption. Along the way, I witnessed the demise of the Mystery Meat Era and the rise of the Flat-Iron Steak with Grilled Broccolini Generation, with a squirt of red chimichurri sauce on top.

Preparing menus for takeoff

United’s Chelsea Food Services in Newark opened 25 years ago, back when Americans were gobbling up fat-free and fusion foods and a recession was pinching airlines’ purses. Its approximately 140,000-square-foot building on the south end of the airfield caters United-operated flights; a second 15,000-square-foot kitchen on the north side services regional United Express flights. The larger structure is plain and white, like a block of tofu. No tantalizing aromas escape its glass doors.

At the front desk, I received my touring ensemble and headed to a conference room to meet McLoughlin and Robin Carr, executive chef at the Newark site. (The airline also has kitchens in Denver, Houston, Cleveland and Honolulu.) The pair wore traditional chef’s jackets and pants: white for Carr, black for McLoughlin.

McLoughlin lives in Chicago but travels around the world visiting United’s caterers and consulting with staff members on the menus, which are regularly tweaked. Many of the changes are based on customer research and observations by flight attendants. For example, the flight crew might note that, due to popular demand, they need a larger supply of lobster mac-and-cheese. Or they might recommend nixing the hot breakfast sandwich, due to no demand.

“Fruit and the scrambled egg skillet do much better as a.m. meals,” McLoughlin said.

Two decades ago, Carr said, entree choices barely stretched beyond steak and potatoes and roasted chicken. Over the years, the options have vastly expanded with global flavors (Indian, Korean, Japanese) and specialized diets (vegetarian, gluten-free). Travelers can also personalize their meals, adding or subtracting certain items.

“We put the starch in a separate cup and the protein on the side,” McLoughlin said, “so you can adjust the meals to your tastes.”

United’s experts also follow trends and movements that are reshaping the culinary landscape. When possible, they use hormone-free beef, sustainable seafood and local and seasonal ingredients. The menu planners have also been incorporating bolder flavors and more adventurous pantry items, such as flat-iron steak and short ribs; beets, fennel and butternut squash; and aioli.

“We should do more lamb and duck,” McLoughlin said about the polarizing proteins.

To spark innovation, the airline partners with chefs affiliated with the Trotter Project, a nonprofit organization that educates and inspires budding talent. Since March, professionals such as “Top Chef” competitor Richie Farina and Della Gossett, pastry chef at Spago Beverly Hills, have tossed ideas into the pot and helped reimagine airplane food.

“Having fresh eyes and chefs with no boundaries gives us a different perspective,” said McLoughlin, who has worked in the culinary field for more than 30 years.

Although the chefs dream big, the reality of serving food at high altitude snaps them out of their reveries. One of their greatest challenges is countering the effects of the high altitude and pressurized cabins. The lack of humidity causes passengers to lose their sense of smell and taste, a roughly 30 percent decline of taste bud strength. Also crashing the dinner party: a persistent engine noise, which is as melodious as the buzz of a busted speaker.

To compensate for the diminished flavor, the staff uses a heavy hand with spices and aromatic herbs. They incorporate tomatoes, basil and rosemary into the recipes but go light on the salt. They roast vegetables, a cooking technique that releases the natural sugars, and sous-vide meats and fish to retain moisture. They also avoid butter-based sauces, such as hollandaise, which tend to break when reheated.

Finally, all dishes must fit within the dimensions of the trolley cart, the sole mode of transportation on the ground and in the air. That means no meals can be taller than two inches or wider than 12. To spruce up the (flat) presentation, the flight attendants receive instructions on how to assemble and display the dishes. The tutorial includes a step-by-step guide sheet, photos and, eventually, videos.

“We need them to look inside our mind and think: What did the chef imagine?” he said.

Source: Washington post

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