The Secret Life of Airplane Food

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The Secret Life of Airplane Food

In-flight service is a tricky business. Not only do flight attendants have to take orders in the air and serve hot beverages and steamy trays without spilling on passengers confined to their seats for hours on end, but in the upper tier classes, flight attendants double as chefs, plating multi-course meals in air to rival those of a restaurant, all in the confines of an airline prep space only slightly larger than the bathrooms.

After several rounds of impressively plated in-flight meals (a mezze plate on Emirates that rivaled that of the Mediterranean restaurant in my Greek neighborhood, a casual salmon salad on United that was plated cleaner than I’d piece a place of fish in a non-moving kitchen at home), my curiosity rose. How are these service magicians doing this? How are they preparing and plating food that’s completely Foodstagrammable when I can barely read a book in air? (Thanks, motion sickness.)

On a recent Emirates flight returning to NYC from Milan, I took a field trip up to first class to see how this all goes down.

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Those impressively colorful and neat salads and cold dishes? Most are plated by the airline’s catering team on the ground, covered in Saran and then unwrapped and gently garnished before being served. There are plenty of restaurants that use similar methods, and it hardly seems like a cheat when fresh herbs or sauce are drizzled of the pre-plated courses.

But that’s the easy part. For hot dishes, flight attendants start with a cold meal, kept together in a tin tray but separated by components of the dish, so that no ingredient is touching, similarly to how a child would ensure there’s a solid barrier between the peas and mac and cheese on a plate. These ingredients stay separated as the entire foil tray goes into the special galley oven (purposefully designed to use stream and dry heat to maintain the flavor of the reheated airline dishes) to heat for about fifteen minutes.

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Every component of the dish heats at the same temperature for the same time, and when it’s warm the flight attendant will then get to work on a counter about three times the size of an in-flight dining tray (not big!) that is in no way turbulence resistant. One small bump and the perfectly cooked green beans can roll of the dish and ruin the entire composition.

As part of their training, the Emirates cabin crew is instructed on cooking and plating guidelines to prepare the meals on board and ensure they’re presented as the airline’s chef and catering team envisioned them to look. Each dish has a certain look that must be memorized by the cabin crew, similar to any restaurant kitchen. A quick drizzle of sauce and a fresh herb garnish on top helps spruce up the plate, which is then ready to serve and enjoy at the comfort of one’s tray table.

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Using two steady hands, never touching the rims of the plates and pure memorization and practice are the keys to plating any dish in-air, and as I witnessed in the galley kitchen which had barely enough room for three, just a few drizzles of anything and a leaf of something else go a long, long way. I watched a chilled pea panna cotta transform from an appetizer you maybe wouldn’t pass up at a wedding to a work of art created over 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t magic, it didn’t even look that difficult, but I shuffled my airplane socked-feet back to my not-first class seat content with my new plating knowledge. Oh, and the glass of Dom Perignon the cabin crew treated me to, because I had to know if it’s difficult to open Champagne in-air, right?
Spoiler: It’s not, but it never hurts to ask…

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