Taking the fine dining experience up in the air. The privilege of pre-ordering a meal crafted by some of the most sought-after chefs in the world. The most extensive offering of Burgundy wines you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
When people pine for the glamorous days of air travel, they probably just haven’t checked out what the top airlines are doing to up their game when it comes to service. Of course, there’s no going back to the jet-set years, but what has replaced the smoking privilege and the gloved hostess ready to carve you a roast chicken? A fine meal that doesn’t negate the work you’ve done on your diet; a dish attuned to the season of your destination; an easier time dealing with jetlag once you’ve landed—plus all the others I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
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These are what the award-winning Singapore Airlines, named the best in the world this 2019 by TripAdvisor Traveller’s Choice, has committed to serve its premium clientele. At this year’s World Gourmet Forum, a gathering of the airlines’s elite group of chefs and wine consultants, Singapore Airlines (SIA) rolled out its new seasonal menus, presented its extensive range of artisanal wines available in flight, and its fresh efforts at a more personalized dining experience on board.
The highlight of the event which took place at Singapore’s Grand Hyatt was the presentation of this year’s ICP chefs and the respective dishes they crafted for the airline. ICP, now on its 21st year with Singapore Airlines, stands for International Culinary Panel. “The program is about curating dishes which represent regional chefs where Singapore Airlines fly to,” Antony McNeil, Food and Beverage Director of SIA, tells ANCX. He says the program gives the airline the opportunity to engage with chefs in different parts of the globe, allowing a discourse on food and beverage trends and best seasonal approaches.
“What we look for is authenticity to the region, sustainability of ingredients. Freshness, of course, is important to us, and then we need to see how those meals match the SIA ethos and philosophy for food and beverage,” McNeil explains, when asked about what’s important to the airline when it comes to the dishes that form their repertoire. “We very much focus on popular local favorites so meals and dishes reflecting the region [are important] but also reflecting the taste profile of the ingredients being used. And we just look for very simple flavor execution, very simple flavor profile because we need to replicate what’s being developed in the chef’s restaurants, we need to be able to take that up into in-flight. Meaning, cooked restaurant-style and converted into an airline quality meal.”
Matt Moran, a celebrity chef in Australia being the force behind some of the country’s most exciting dining establishments, is with the ICP. Moran is tall and imposing but is a natural at speaking to an audience. He is, after all, also a familiar face in Australian TV. For the presentation in Singapore, he chose to showcase a lamb loin dish, made of a sliver of lamb cooked sous vide, then seared so the meat has a nice crust.
The reason he’s doing lamb is because this fourth generation farmer has a lamb farm which raises about four and a half thousand lambs a year—which are then supplied to his restaurants. His lamb dish for SIA has peas, and tarragon in anchovy oil which he says gives that much needed acidity to the rather fatty nature of the meat. “Flavors and textures are important, says Moran, “but to me it’s all about the balance.”
Moran’s dishes appear in flights around the Asia Pacific region, as well as flights from Singapore to London, “because we have a certain type of passenger that likes his type of food,” says McNeil.
Each year, chefs at ICP are assessed through four menu presentations at their respective restaurants. “In my team I have five chefs and each of them have their designated ICP chef they need to work with. And each of those chefs, when they do the menu development, they look at the type of meals being offered, [whether they’re] first class, business class. The Japanese Yoshihiro Murata, works on premium economy meals out of Japan.” Murata, considered a master in kaiseki runs two Michelin-starred establishments in Japan.
“There’s a difference in the food people want to eat when they’re going away from home, and when they’re coming home—which is when they prefer comfort food,” says Sanjeev Kapoor, another ICP chef. This is, of course, just one of the considerations that go into what is served in-flight in SIA. Ingredients need to be in season. And, in the past year and a half, says Kapoor, “the challenge is to make Indian food more light, more regional.”
Indeed, who knew so much back and forth, hemming and hawing is involved in what ends up in your plate on a SIA flight?
“We want every experience in flight to be the same as in a restaurant if you were sitting dining,” says McNeil.
Are awards an important consideration when inviting a chef for ICP? I ask McNeil. “Awards are important because its recognition of the chef’s ability,” he tells me after we sample the pass-around versions of what the chefs presented. He tells me that this year, SIA is also working with chefs outside of the ICP program to include ones from Barcelona and Copenhagen. “We wanna reflect different cultures, different regional cuisines where SG is flying,” adds McNeil.
SIA was the first international airline to invite guest chefs to be a part of their food and beverage team. And many airlines now have followed suit. “But Singapore Airlines has been the most consistent,” observes McNeil.
The SIA F&B Director is also proud of the airline’s wine program where he is part of a select group of consultants. The team went to Burgundy last year and personally spoke to 17 wine suppliers and wine producers—a gesture that greatly rewarded the team. Now the range of wines offered in SIA flights are stuff one won’t find in supermarkets or even high end wine stores.
“Because we have a very personal relationship [with our wine suppliers],” says McNeil. “Many of them engage with us saying ‘We’ve never had any airline come personally to shake our hands, so we wanna work with you.’ We’re really taking it back to the grassroot level to make sure we get the best opportunity for our passengers, the right products.”
Apart from food and beverage, wellness is also part of the concerns of SIA. The airline has enjoined the services of sleep architects that curate programs for health and well-being—a necessary feature especially for long-haul flights. This program can help prepare passengers before their flight, help them sleep better in the flight and manage their jet lag.
Which is very much still connected to the meals one enjoys whenever one is flying. Hence the great amount of money, effort and time that SIA invests in its food and beverage program. These days, isn’t being in the pink of health the ultimate status symbol? “Customers are increasingly mindful about their diet and the type of ingredients that go into their meals,” says SIA EVP Mr Mak Swee Wah, “and using fresh produce that’s in season as well as a lighter cuisine style are becoming more important in helping health-conscious customers feel more refreshed after their flights.”
We don’t know about you but isn't that better than feeling glamorous?