In-flight catering: What’s cooking?

 - February 6, 2008, 10:58 AM

Attention Iron Chefs. Here’s a challenge for you. Try putting together those beautifully prepared and eminently eatable dishes in a kitchen the size of an apartment closet, with just enough counter space to open a can of soup. Or take a shot at whipping up a soufflé at 8,000 feet, or building an intricately stacked entrée at the same time you’re creating a sauce, grinding coffee beans and serving drinks to a dozen demanding passengers. And do it all with no sous-chef and no assistants, a microwave oven that looks as if it belongs in the local convenience store and a convection oven barely large enough to accommodate a couple of plucked pigeons.

Welcome to the galley of a typical large business jet, where food preparation and any form of cooking is always a challenge. Despite the limitations of the galley, more and more passengers are “foodies” who expect the same quality and service at dinner in their $30 million business jet that they got last night at Chez Panisse in Los Angeles.

Today’s business aviation catering specialists are better than ever, putting together intricate meals for virtually any ethnic or religious or dietary group and adapting menus to meet new trends, from organic to vegan. But even so, a growing number of customers–flight attendants, schedulers and dispatchers, pilots and passengers–are asking for raw ingredients that can be prepared and/or cooked on board the aircraft, or that can be sliced and sectioned, par-boiled or seared and easily finished in flight. They don’t want a menu, said one flight attendant. “They want what they want.”

Donna Casacchia, president of The Corporate School of Etiquette, is well aware of the phenomenon. One aircraft owner, said Casacchia, made it clear in sending his flight attendant through a course that the motivation was “no more catered meals.” Another owner asked Casacchia if she could recommend a flight attendant capable of “slicing and dicing and putting meals together in flight.”

Bombardier chief flight attendant Debbie Franz is also acquainted with this growing demand for in-flight meal preparation. Franz manages the flight attendant staff of five for Bombardier’s demonstrator aircraft fleet in Hartford, Conn.

Included in her budget is funding for culinary training, from menu planning and ingredients to the pairing of wine and foods and advanced saucing. Some flight attendants have attended a special two-day advanced course in menu planning and culinary skills offered by The Corporate School of Etiquette. One recently attended a class on Indian cuisine. Franz herself has attended courses at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and hopes to send a number of flight attendants from her staff to specialized courses at the prestigious school this year.

More and more flight attendant résumés list culinary skills, she said, from being a certified chef to having at least some training in food preparation.

Have Wings, Can Cook
Benjamin Jones launched his career after graduating from the CIA and was working for renowned chef Wolfgang Puck at Spago when some Paramount Pictures customers at the Los Angeles restaurant began complaining about the quality of the meals on their company business jets. As Jones recalls, it was not long after that he showed up at the hangar with his knives and started cooking aboard the aircraft. He is now a qualified flight attendant as well as a chef and works full time for a Fortune 50 company. Not only are the passengers happy with the freshly prepared meals, he said, “It actually costs the company a lot less than catering.”

Holly Sirois is a flight attendant with more than the usual culinary expertise. She has worked at small restaurants, owned her own restaurant for a while, and worked at the former Rita’s Catering in Boston before becoming a flight attendant. Today, she is an independent contract flight attendant who can list among her accomplishments preparing and serving an in-flight meal on an airplane whose passenger list included Food Network star Mario Batali.

Her last full-time position was managing in-flight services for Flightworks in Kennesaw, Ga., where she launched a culinary training program for the flight attendant staff.

With the limitations of the typical business jet galley, she said, in-flight food preparation is a balancing act that requires a high level of organization. She does as much of the work as possible in advance, either in a kitchen before the flight or by arriving at the aircraft early.

Joe Botelho, a full-time flight attendant for The Drax Group’s flight department in Naples, Fla., agrees. He does his in-flight cooking in a Global Express, the galley of which he designed to his own specifications.

Botelho learned to cook at a resort in Italy and owned a restaurant in Florida. A former Portuguese Air Force flight engineer, Botelho in his current job combines his two great loves–flying and cooking.

Like Sirois, Botelho cleans and prepares everything possible before the flight, slicing and dicing, roasting vegetables and searing beef or chicken.

Kendra Wilcox is a chef whose “Southwest French Fusion” cuisine emphasizes low sodium and reduced saturated fats and cholesterol and uses her personal blend of seasonings and fresh herbs and spices. Her kitchen near Telluride, Colo., is 9,000 feet above sea level, so she is familiar with cooking in an airplane cabin pressurized to 8,000 feet. It’s an environment, she explained, in which a potato wrapped in foil would bake in two hours, more than twice the time required at sea level.

In-flight Cooking Has Its Limitations
While culinary education and experience is valuable, food preparation on the business jet has its limitations, determined for the most part by the galley.

On even the smaller bizliners, such as Embraer’s Lineage 1000 or the Airbus A318, galley space is rarely an issue and there is typically room for such “luxuries” as a refrigerator, a trash compactor and a full-size oven and warming drawers. But smaller business jets, even those the size of a Global 5000 or Gulfstream G550, are rarely so well equipped.

Susan Friedenberg, president of Corporate Flight Attendant Training and Services in Philadelphia, believes the galley of the typical business jet is simply not designed for on-board food preparation, and particularly not for cooking. This might be surprising since some aircraft are capable of flights of 14 hours and more, during which time passengers expect multiple meals. “Unless the galley was designed for cooking, don’t,” she advised.

Wilcox concurs, “Don’t even try to cook from scratch in a business jet cabin,” she warned. Doing as much food preparation as possible on the ground to minimize the work in the air is the key, she added.

 While there are certainly limitations to the in-flight preparation and cooking of meals, it appears culinary training for flight attendants is becoming more common.
Business aviation caterers are becoming a typical source of such training. According to Paula Kraft, owner of Tastefully Yours catering in Atlanta, “the bar has been raised in terms of the culinary expectations of business jet passengers” and, as a result, flight attendants in growing numbers are spending time in her kitchen to learn various culinary disciplines.

Other business aviation catering kitchens also offer some degree of culinary familiarization and training.

Casacchia keeps her advanced culinary classes small, no more than a half-dozen students at a time, and she has a waiting list. The $1,600, two-day course is taught by a trained chef and covers considerable ground, from saucing techniques to menu planning. It is typical for the chef to use a single basic ingredient, such as spinach, as a teaching tool for an entire day, incorporating it into crepes for breakfast, salad at lunch and mashed potatoes at dinner.

Sources for culinary training are varied, from such formal settings as The Culinary Institute of America to the more intimate one-day classes offered by A Store for Cooks in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Many colleges and universities offer culinary classes, and wineries often feature classes on the pairing of wines and foods.

The CIA, in fact, offers a three-day course designed specifically for corporate flight attendants. Training includes such subjects as holding and reheating food, product identification and knowledge, knife cuts and exceptional in-flight service. Classes  are held at the institute’s Hyde Park campus. The next courses are scheduled for February 12-14, March 26-28 and May 13-15.

If in-flight food preparation and cooking is called for, so is a course in food handling and safety. While dining is one of life’s more exquisite experiences, Jean Dible of Georgia Food Safety Professionals in Atlanta warns, “food also kills.” Dible teaches a one-day course in food safety designed specifically for company employees involved in food handling and preparation.

Is in-flight food preparation and cooking just a phase propelled by growing interest in the culinary arts? Or is it something more long-term created by business jet passengers who, once weaned off fast food, have no intention of going back? Flight attendants, chefs and even business jet cabin designers are betting on the latter.
So as passengers become more demanding, flight attendants are becoming more attuned to the culinary arts, chefs are adapting to the limitations of the cabin and aircraft interior designers are creating galleys more suited to on-board food preparation and cooking.

In-flight Meal Preparation and Cooking: How Safe Is It?

More and more flight attendants have some culinary training, and business jet galleys are increasingly designed for at least minimal in-flight food preparation and cooking. All this is in response to demands by “foodie” passengers who more than ever expect the best catering, and many flight attendants are now doing as much of the meal preparation as possible at home, from washing and dicing and slicing to searing and par-boiling.

But is it safe? That’s the question some in the business aviation industry are asking–with good reason.

Jean Dible of Georgia Food Safety Professionals in Atlanta has some of the answers. Dible teaches food safety training, a one-day course available to corporate flight departments, charter operators, fractional operators, FBOs, caterers and others in the business aviation community.

For those who do not take the specter of food poisoning seriously, Dible points out that food-borne illness is responsible for more than 5,000 deaths a year in the U.S., and that contaminated food puts more than 325,000 Americans in the hospital each year.

The food-borne outbreak risk to any individual or corporation owning a business aircraft is “tremendously increased,” said Dible, because the majority of business aviation employees who handle or order food have not been properly trained in food safety procedures.

Food preparation and transport for commercial purposes is strictly regulated in all 50 states, and for a flight attendant to prepare food in her kitchen at home for passenger consumption later is illegal.

Food-borne bacteria, said Dible, is multiplying in protein foods during the period it is being transported from the shop to the home, continues to multiply during preparation, during transportation from home to the aircraft (if it has not been properly chilled) and during storage on the airplane (if there is no proper refrigeration or chilling unit).

Susan Friedenberg, the owner of Corporate Flight Attendant Training and Services in Philadelphia, does not offer culinary training, but she does emphasize safety in food handling as part of the cabin services syllabus.

At its most basic, food safety is a matter of time and temperature. Bacteria doubles every 20 minutes, she explained. The danger zone with regard to food temperature is between 41 degrees F at the low end and 135 degrees F at the high end. What’s more, heated food should be blast-chilled down to below 40 degrees F within seconds of being packaged, “and a blast chiller is not something that you find in the typical apartment kitchen.”

Dible points out that there is also the question of liability. “My advice to flight attendants who are involved in food preparation and cooking is to be sure you have plenty of liability insurance.”

Many of the students in her food safety classes claim that they have never had an in-flight incident of food poisoning, to which Dible responds, “that they know of.” The bacterial incubation time can be as long as three days, “so the result is not associated with the meal the victim ate on the flight.”