Hi Chef Bob, can you spare some time from the galley for a few questions?
I’m flattered that you’d ask my opinion on something I take so seriously. I’ve spent 37 years designing menus for airlines, including some of the late, great ones like Pan Am, Eastern Air Lines and Braniff, up to the modern-day international and US carriers. I’m caught in a whirwind where one minute I say ‘what a small, humble industry’ and the next I say ‘gosh, this is a big deal’.
Don’t be so modest, thousands of people enjoy your food every day!
?I like to think so. As I tell some of my celebrity chef friends and my restaurant and hotel chef friends, talkshow hosts like Jay Leno and David Letterman have had their fun with our food over the years, but I’m so proud to say that if you sit in a first class or business-class seat on some international carriers, you’ll have more courses and better quality food than you’ll find in most upscale restaurants. As a frequent flyer I get to enjoy a lot of travel and a lot of restaurants, and I can tell you that is still very true.
How did you get into the airline catering business?
?As a boy growing up on a farm in a family of 10, dad had much more help in the fields than mom had in the kitchen, so feeding all these hard workers was a chore in itself. At a young age I started helping mom make three to five meals a day, and I soon realised it was something I really enjoyed. I loved everything about it the smells, the flavours, the touch, the sounds. While all my brothers were out hunting and fishing, I was asking my mom if we could try a new recipe for apple pie. So I knew what I wanted to do but not how to go about doing it.
In the mid-1970s, when I was around 17, I paid a visit to the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York, and I knew immediately it was the place I needed to be. I spent two years there and, like all my fellow students, I couldn’t wait to finish and open my own restaurant. I was inspired by Graham Care’s show The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child’s cooking show on TV. My dream came true and I was hired straight after graduation as a sous chef for a startup French restaurant in Miami. Two weeks after I started the chef quit, so I became the chef at the tender age of 21. However, that only lasted six months. I need to tell you I’m not a lazy person, and if you know anything about the inflight industry you know you won’t make it if you’re lazy, but working 12-14-hour days, seven days a week when you’re newly married with a baby was too much.
So I saw a job ad for Marriott in the Miami Herald and thought great, I always wanted to work for a hotel. I went to the interview and was surprised to find a huge building with trucks outside about 30 minutes into the interview I said ‘this isn’t the hotel is it?’ and they said ‘no it’s an inflight catering company’. That started my journey in inflight, quite by accident.
That’s the long version of the story. My original intent, just like every young chef, was to stand around in a double-breasted jacket and bark orders at waiters, but that quickly changed and I’m thrilled that accident happened. I like to think that a lot of my customers are as well.
Are you now one of North America’s biggest chefs in terms of staff numbers?
?I’m glad you said staff numbers as my wife says I’m overweight! My official title is corporate executive chef for Gate Gourmet North America. I oversee the menu design and food production of all our operations in the USA and Canada. We have between 10 and 12 of the most talented menu design chefs in the inflight industry that look after customer needs, come up with new food ideas, do R&D, test new recipes, and offer new menu ideas. We also have between 40 and 60 production chefs at any given time, depending on production levels.
So what is the secret to a good airline meal?
?If you’d asked me 20 years ago I’d have said ‘yes there’s a secret and I’m looking for it’. I’m proud to say that after 37 years we’ve cracked it! The secret is to keep it simple and honest. I love to hear customers say ‘Chef Bob, we don’t want airline food, we want restaurant-quality food’. Passengers are so much more educated now than they ever were, and they know so much more about food thanks to things like the Food Network on TV, celebrity chefs and cookbooks, so we want to give them restaurant-quality food.
If you go to the best restaurants and talk to celebrity chefs, they will say the same thing I’ll tell you now: you use the best ingredients you can and you use fresh ingredients. That’s what we’re working into our menus now. The God’s honest truth is, I wish we’d taken this fresh, restaurant-style approach 20 or 30 years ago it would have made life so much easier.
But there are some chemistry issues. The simple fact is that up to 20% of your flavour profile is lost at 35,000ft. A lot of that is credited to the pressurisation of the cabin, but I think it’s a lot more than that. I think it’s also the fact that you could be sitting next to someone you don’t know, there could be certain odours on an aircraft you don’t get in an upscale restaurant, and there are noises you don’t get in a restaurant you don’t get the lively chatter, you get a hum or drone, or the sound of whatever movie you’re watching and those things work against you. So you need to make sure the food compensates for that. The biggest thing is the pressurisation of the cabin and it definitely affects the tastebuds. I called this out about 18 years ago and since then there have been studies about it, but some of the things we do to alleviate that are pretty simple.
If 20% of the flavour of food is gone, how do you compensate for it? Immediately you think of adding more salt and pepper, but all that does is make it saltier and more peppery. What we’ve discovered is that there are other ways to compensate. For example, instead of poaching or sautéing a chicken breast, let’s not only add flavour with marinades and fresh herbs and spices, but let’s change the cooking techniques perhaps pan-sear it. Immediately you’ve got the smell and taste of something that been roasted in the oven. Or let’s grill it – again immediately you’ve got the flavour and smell of something you’ve just cooked in your backyard, so there are ways to make up for that 20% loss.
Are these techniques just for premium-class meals though? Can they be used for coach meals?
?It can’t just be done, it is being done. Think about it, yes it has to be mass produced and must be less expensive than the first class and business class meals, but it costs no more to grill or pan sear something than it does to sautée something, so I’ve been able to make it cost neutral. What I haven’t been able to do in coach are some of the fun things I get to do in first class, like giving restaurant-style presentation. Going back to cooking with my mom, what I’ve always loved about food is how it affects every sense you have. With music you hear it, with art you see it and touch it, but with food you can taste it, smell it, hear it it involves absolutely every sense. So whether you’re sitting in first class or coach, I try to make every sense react.
The advantage I have in first and business class is that I have flight attendants who can do fun things with a plate, so it’s not just a chicken breast with rice and a vegetable on a plate, rather it’s a rice pilaf studded with asparagus set on the plate, with the chicken breast sitting on top and lemon saffron butter melting on top of that. We don’t have a lot of dimensions to work with as our plates are small, so what I try to encourage our customers to do is to work with the flight attendants to build on the one dimension we do have, which is height. So in first and business class we can build the components of a dish one on top of another, again getting back to the restaurant look.
Unfortunately when you’ve got 300 passengers in the back, we don’t have that advantage. But that doesn’t mean they do without. We look for other ways to compensate. It might not be with the entrée, which is usually the most difficult portion for the flight attendants to handle. Instead we try to do some fun things with the salads and fun things on the tray setup. One thing I love to do is to put little condiments on the tray it could be a sachet of hot sauce or a speciality breath mint, but the passengers love it. I giggle when I sit in coach as they read the label of every little thing they pick up. If you’re given a package at home or in a restaurant you never read it, but on a flight were obsessed with reading every little thing put in front of us. I like to play on that and find inexpensive fun things on the tray that the coach passengers can experience.
Are there any other new ideas you want to try?
?As you can imagine, over 37 years I’ve done just about everything, but there is something I have been touching on that some customers have grabbed a hold of and are running with, while some others are still standoffish. In all the frequent flyer focus sessions I’ve been a part of, you hear the good the bad and the ugly, but in every focus session everyone says the same thing: give us choice. I’ve been successful in giving some customers choices and I wish they would expand on it.
So what does that choice mean? It could be as simple as, instead of putting a sauce on my protein, give it to me on the side. I want to take that a couple of steps further. For example, in business class and first class I want to say there is a choice of omelette or cereal, and then offer a choice of cheese, mushroom or Spanish omelette, much like you’d have at a restaurant. And in coach I’d like to say you have a choice of an omelette or cereal, and offer a further option of a cheese or mushroom omelette. It can be done, and I’ve proven it can be done, because I’ve done it with some of my customers. It requires careful planning, but by bulk packing different ingredients we can add that garnish at the last minute. It’s a little extra effort at a minimal extra cost, but it has a fantastic impact because now were giving the passengers what they want we’re giving them choices and more of a restaurant feel. I’ve done this successfully with pastas, where instead of the flight attendant just asking if you’d like the chicken, beef or pasta entrée, if you want the pasta they ask would you like the pomodoro sauce with that or the creamy pesto? And then saying ‘By the way, you can have roasted vegetables and some grilled shrimp if you like.’ A couple of my carriers are doing that and I’m very proud. So you ask me what I would like to see more of, I would like to see that philosophy being expanded and carried out more.
Are time-pressed flight attendants happy with these options?
Most flight attendants that I have met and worked with want to do a good job and want to put forth the extra effort. I’ve found if they’re approached the correct way then they will be happy to do something extra for the passengers. Most flight attendants are very accommodating and they want exactly what we want: they want a happy passenger, and they’re proud of what they do.
If I don’t make the meal options easy and successful for the flight attendants, then I won’t be successful. 35 years ago I used to do half-day training classes for Pan Am crew, where I would show them the right way to carve a Chateaubriand and how to open wines and so on. But unfortunately flight attendants today, while they have some training in those sorts of things, it’s hardly what they used to have. So it’s up to me in our test kitchens, where my group of chefs develop the menus, to make it as easy for them as possible. We do that a couple of different ways. We bulk-board first and business-class meals to get the freshest appearance possible, so the crew can toss a salad, plate an entrée or pour raspberry coulis on a dessert at the last minute to give the freshest appearance we can.
Another thing we do is ‘handover documents’, so if the attendants have to make some finishing touches to an appetiser like putting a grilled shrimp on top of pineapple coleslaw, we’ll show them a picture of the plate, show them what it looks like with the ‘slaw on, then with the shrimp on top, and how the lime wedge is supposed to look. We give them a step-by-step document showing how to build the plate and present it the right way.
Do the confines of aircraft galleys limit your ambitions?
?They do, but let’s face it, the economics of air travel are to get as many people on an aircraft as you can, and that’s what makes you profitable. So it’s not like galleys are built around our needs, but rather we have to build things around galleys.
Would you like to see any changes made to galley designs and equipment??
The one thing I would like to see is bigger work surfaces. Through the years we’ve learned to cope with the ovens, and quite frankly we’ve got that down pat. And if an airline doesn’t have refrigerated carts, that’s fine because our carts are cooled before they leave our kitchen so everything is served at a safe temperature. I know I can’t have open flames, so realistically what I would like to see is a larger working surface not to make the food better, but to make it easier for the flight attendants to prepare meals. I think it would help them and it would help expedite what they’re doing a lot faster. Where that room would come from though, I have no idea.
Speaking of open flames, do you have any confessions??
Early in my career I suggested doing flaming Crepe Suzettes onboard and I’m not joking. I was very young and that brought a giggle.
Will we see more fast food-style offerings in the future?
This is something I not only predict we will see more of, but it’s something I’ve seen through the years as early as 25 years ago. One of the most popular meals with one of my US carriers was called the Great American Cheeseburger. When we provisioned food choices, it began as a 50% item and ended up being 75% when it was gone, and the only reason they stopped serving it was that after five years it was time to change the menu. When we’ve tried something like a burger as a main meal it hasn’t gone down as well as it has as a second or third service item.
I’ve seen a lot of that on my international carriers in all cabins, with a movie snack or a second or third service, such as cheese and crackers. And pizza is a big thing and always will be it’s simple and hand-held, and whether its due to nothing more than boredom, people want something like that to eat.
What I am seeing a big resurgence in is not so much fast food as comfort food. Some of my domestic carriers are excited about chicken pot pie in first class, which has been really well received. Meatloaf is fading out it was a hip thing to serve about six years ago so our customers grabbed that, and we made very basic ones and upscale ones. Upscale sandwiches like avocado and chicken, and also grilled cheese sandwiches, are doing really well. My customers are begging for comfort foods.
For example, around 18 years ago one of my customers, which is famous for serving ice cream sundaes in first and business class, said their passengers were screaming for a healthy alternative. So we designed some very attractive fruit plates put 50% sundaes and 50% fruit plates on board. The feedback came back almost immediately: we need more sundaes, less fruit plates, so we went to 60% sundaes, 40% fruit plates. Another week goes by and you guessed it we’re at 80% sundaes, 20% fruit plates, until they came back and said ‘forget the fruit plates’. When people are travelling I don’t know if the mindset is ‘I’m going to work so I deserve this’, or ‘Nobody I know is watching so I’ll have the sundae’, but people feel they want the best. Whether in first, business or economy, the passenger wants something above and beyond. But when it gets to the second or third service, that’s when I’ve had more success with simple comfort foods.
Are any foods unsuitable for inflight catering?
?Oftentimes, food manufacturers will give the caterer or airline hundreds of thousands of pieces of a food product because the mentality it will get out with the flying public and will be a great marketing tool. So we are sent things like breath mints, chewing gum and potato chips. I won’t mention the name, but I was offered 100,000 bags of a new flavour of cheesy snack and I was so pleased I immediately put them in the coach meals for an airline. The next day I was called into one of its aircraft, and the back of every headrest had orange fingerprints on it, so I had to pull that snack off immediately. That’s the sort of thing we have to think of.
We also have to be mindful of odours. All passengers love cheese, but we have to be very careful what types of cheese we use. Likewise with herbs, we love to use fresh herbs in all classes but we have to be careful as a little rosemary is perfect, but a little too much and the whole cabin smells like rosemary. Sometimes that works in our favour though as things like the smell of bake-on-board cookies put a totally different comfort level in the cabin. On some flights I even load raw muffin dough and the flight attendants bake them but this is only in first class, so you have to feel sorry for those in coach smelling fresh muffins.
What has been your most successful airline meal??
Nobody’s ever asked me that before. I guess longevity means a lot if something’s been flying a long time, that means a lot. I did two very successful dishes. One was a lemon thyme chicken on a vegetable paella, so the idea was that a passenger could have a vegetable paella, or have it with lemon thyme chicken on top, and that flew for nine years. Another one flew for 12 years, a jalapeno jelly-glazed chicken with cornbread pilaf on the side. If a restaurant runs something for 12 years it must be good, so if an airline runs it for 12 years it must be good.
What would be your dream inflight dinner??
We talk about simplicity in meals, and for me, the simpler, more honest and better quality, the better. The direction our customers give us is ‘don’t give us hidden sauces and don’t give us anything where the passengers have to ask what it is’. I say to chefs ‘Let’s pretend there’s no menu here. Can you look at this dish and identify everything on it and tell me what it is? If you can do that, you’re serving a completely honest meal. That’s what I like inflight.
I want the best it doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be honest. I like to start with a simple appetiser my absolute favourite is beluga caviar, but then I’m not a cheap date! Or a really nice piece of smoked salmon, the simplest salad with absolutely no garnish and a light vinagrette, will get me ready for my second course. For my entrée I like to have a little fun. So I always gravitate to some sort of braised beef or lamb because those types of proteins do exceptionally well at 35,000ft. They’re very forgiving if a flight attendant leaves something in the oven for an extra five minutes, as braised short rib or lamb shank actually tastes better if it’s forgotten about for a while. I usually skip dessert but I always like to have some type of cheese.
Any tips for flying foodies?
?When I travel, especially on long flights, I always have three things in my briefcase: sachets of hot sauce, a small pepper mill there’s no substitute for fresh ground pepper and usually some pieces of cheddar.
What’s your favourite meal at home?
?I’ve always been a huge fan of my western heritage, meaning the cowboy lifestyle. So my absolute favourite thing in the world is to be outside with my king-size smoker, cooking brisket or pork ribs. That’s good, but what makes it better is when I’ve got 20 or 30 friends and family over and I’m cooking for them. A very traditional Texan smoked barbeque is my absolute favourite.
Hungry for more? Chef Bob shares his stories from 37 years in the industry in his book ‘Affair in the Air’.
Chef Bob was speaking to Adam Gavine