WITH a long list of awards to its name and a track record to match, there's no disputing the fact that Singapore Airlines is a great way to fly. Airline food, however, is another matter altogether - unless you happen to be on a diet of champagne and caviar. Serving a few hundred meals at 10,000 metres comes with inherent problems involving cabin pressure and a lack of humidity that even the top-rated airlines find difficult to solve. At those altitudes and under less-than-conducive conditions, it's not easy to prevent chicken from tasting like cardboard and steak from losing its juicy flavour.
In 1998, SIA recognised the value of further refining their in-flight service and presenting passengers with meals to remember, so it created an International Culinary Panel (ICP) and invited some of the top chefs in the world to develop menus to fly by. Its World Gourmet Cuisine has been a staple on SQ flights since then, and the current panel of nine includes some of the biggest stars in the culinary universe.
After much testing and tweaking, each ICP chef contributes about 50 recipes per year, which are prepared by on-site caterers and introduced on a rotation basis at a later stage. Depending on the ingredients involved, some of the recipes are route-specific while many others see service on a wide variety of international routes.
Last week, the airline held its annual World Gourmet Forum in Beijing, where the nine-member panel (minus celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who was unable to attend) gathered to exchange notes, discuss food trends in the airline industry and display their culinary skills at a presentation dinner to a roomful of media and invited guests.
The dishes - all of which were taken from existing SIA menus and none of which resembled airplane food as we know it - were restaurant-grade, prepared in the expansive ground-level kitchens of the China World Hotel. The line-up included a seafood cocktail starter by Nancy Oakes, owner of Boulevard in San Francisco, and a duo of spiced chicken cooked in its own steam by Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor and grilled miso flavoured black cod, from Yoshihiro Murata, owner of the famous kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi in Kyoto.
Next up was mushroom custard in asparagus soup, from Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City, followed by an Asian duet by Sam Leong of the Tung Lok Group (crispy pork belly with hot and sour sauce) and Yeung Koon Yat, the 'abalone king' of Hong Kong's Forum Restaurant (braised superior abalone).
The featured mains came from three-star French chef Georges Blanc (braised beef cheek) and Matthew Moran of Aria in Sydney (duck ravioli in truffle oil nage). Portale (chocolate fondant), Moran (toasted brioche ice cream) and Murata (plum jelly with kumquat) contributed the dessert trio.
SIA executives also announced the launch of 'Popular Local Fare' in-flight cuisine, featuring local favourites from cities around the world such as chilli crab and chicken rice from Singapore, bouillabaisse from Paris and bibimbap from Seoul. The fare will be served in all three classes from next month and comprises the next step in the move towards providing more comfort food to passengers, according to Yap Kim Wah, senior vice-president product and services at SIA.
'We have only one aim - to get smiles from our customers,' said Mr. Yap. 'If the smiles come from the food that they partake, they are even more happy.' As to whether SIA has increased its catering budget to keep one step ahead of its competition, he said: 'You can't be the world number one if you are not prepared to spend - but we have to make sure our prices are competitive.'
Meanwhile, members of the ICP voiced opinions on the direction of airline cuisine, and cuisine in general. 'Chefs seem to be of the opinion that simplicity is a sign of perfection,' says Alfred Portale. 'The trend is to rely heavily on quality ingredients, simply prepared.'
Nancy Oakes also has high hopes for the future of airline cuisine. 'If I had a dream, it would be to have the airline caterers prepare meals using only food that originates from the actual location where a flight is taking off from,' she says. 'SIA is very particular with its catering and their drive for excellence is commendable.'
Best food to serve
She adds: 'You know how home-cooked food always tastes better? When you scale up the amount you're cooking, it's hard to make it as delicious as it is at home. We need to keep that deliciousness so that nothing feels like it's been over-processed. There are a lot of things that happen between the food and getting it to you on board - and not all of it is good for the food. Perhaps the best thing would be to serve sashimi.'
Says Oakes: 'The new-generation planes that use composite materials have a lower cabin pressure, so that would make it easier to prepare an on-board meal.' Her idea of a perfect meal, on board a plane or anywhere else, is 'perfectly made egg fettuccini with a whole white truffle shaved over it.' It's hard to argue with that.
Sanjeev Kapoor, an award-winning chef and host of a long-running cooking show on Indian television, is the newest member of the culinary panel. Since his recipes have been introduced - primarily on Singapore-India routes - the passenger response has been noticeably better, says Mr Yap. Kapoor describes his North Indian cuisine as a 'combination of traditional stuff presented with a bit of madness.'
The chef says that Indian cuisine has not evolved as much as other cuisines. 'There are so many different cuisines within the country and so many different ingredients come into play,' he says. 'Until a few years ago, nobody used broccoli. People are not going to go overboard with Indian food - they might just do something different to enhance it or make it lighter, like using olive oil.'
Georges Blanc has been a member of the ICP since its inception in 1998, and has held three Michelin stars since 1981. 'The problem on planes is we have to trust the cabin crew, especially for the main course as it has to be reheated at the right temperature,' says Blanc. 'It also cannot be reheated for too long because of the sauces. It's a challenge, but it is an interesting challenge. SIA is a very serious company, so we take this very seriously. They have a lot of my recipes in the bank so it is always possible to adapt and improve.'
He adds: 'It's easier to have white meat on board rather than red meat. In France, the fashion now is to revisit classical cuisine and make it lighter. The idea is to have more freshness in the cuisine and not make the dishes too sophisticated. It's also easy to create something that doesn't have the right harmony - it's not about using too many ingredients, but having the right ingredients to create that balance and harmony that leaves a good, deep taste in the mouth.'