At 41,000 feet, catered meals are a pleasant diversion, no matter the length of the flight. London caterer Alison Price On Air has set its aims just a bit higher than a pleasant diversion. Maybe a lot higher.
The London-based business aviation catering start-up is new to business aviation, but its parent company, Alison Price & Company, is well known in London’s corporate and social circles for its high-end cuisine and service at such events as Sir Elton John’s 50th birthday party, and at such venues as Kensington Palace and Lords cricket ground.
With so many of its clients also regular passengers on private and corporate jets, Alison Price On Air saw the move into catering for that market as a natural next step, according to managing director Daniel Hulme. “A little more than three years ago, I had a job in Valencia, Spain, catering the America’s Cup yacht race. I was flying in and out of a local airport and was amazed at the number of private airplanes there carrying visitors and participants in the race. That’s where I got the idea,” he recalls. The rest, he said, was a lot of market research and planning.
Hulme said that in interviewing various individuals in business aviation, he had the impression that the existing catering was “a bit of Russian roulette” in terms of quality. “We thought we could provide something to eliminate that game of chance.”
Hulme then went to the Alison Price chefs to determine which dishes would work under the conditions required of aviation: blast chilling immediately after preparation, transportation to relatively distant airports, pressurized cabins, loading the order onto an aircraft where it might wait in storage for several hours, and finally, reheating and re-plating before being served. Some dishes could make the transition intact. Others required adaptation. Some simply were not suited to in-flight service.
“Our chefs are particular,” explained Hulme. “And rightfully so. They needed some reassurance that the passion they put into their work would not be lost between the kitchen and the table.” For example, sautéed sea scallops are tasty when served directly from the pan, but when reheated they acquire the consistency of a piece of rubber, “not to mention a similar taste.”
It took nearly three months to develop the main menu, and the caterer has launched the first in a series of theme menus to accommodate client ethnic preferences. The Indian theme menu was created with the award-winning restaurant Tamarind, located in London’s Mayfair district. Still to come are Middle East and Asian themed menus.
Flight Attendant Training
“To get it right,” Hulme also interviewed flight attendants, whom he said typically field any catering complaints from passengers. He also paid dozens of visits to dozens of different aircraft types to get an understanding of what a flight attendant might require in terms of packaging of the meals. In the process, he said, “We were shocked to discover that some airplanes don’t have refrigeration units.” He was further taken aback to find that while it is apparently acceptable to put a serving of shellfish or sushi in an unrefrigerated drawer for several hours before serving, for reasons of safety two pilots can’t be served the same meal.
As a result, On Air designed its food containers not only to fit in the limited galley storage space, but also to remain hot or cold as necessary. “We do use a lot of dry ice,” Hulme said with a chuckle.
On Air also plans to acquire the latest in-flight ovens from Italian galley products specialist Iacobucci as part of its plans to refine the menus and ensure that what is prepared in the caterer’s kitchens does not suffer in the final preparation phase in the aircraft cabin.
Hulme also realized that the complexity of On Air cuisine would demand more than some flight attendants could manage. As a result, the company offers a series of flight attendant training classes in its kitchen. Flight attendants from charter operators Gama Aviation and Ocean Sky attended the six-hour course in May. “We try and run a class every couple of months with half a dozen attendees,” said Hulme. “They work with the chefs, play with food and make their own lunch.”
And to make the flight attendant’s job easier still, every meal goes out with a set of detailed, step-by-step instructions on everything from reheating to plating and serving.
Still in the early stage are plans to provide an in-flight private chef and sommelier service. “It’s something that allows fine cuisine and a high level of service, freeing up the flight attendant to actually look after passengers, especially on a large aircraft with dozens of people on board.”
In terms of security, Hulme said the staff carefully checks all incoming products and ingredients and all orders go out in sealed boxes. Deliveries are timed to arrive at the airport and be taken directly to the aircraft. On Air recently received DfT (Department for Transport) security approval, allowing delivery of orders to customers or to airports where DfT screening requirements are in force.
Not only are all the On Air delivery vehicles refrigerated, there is also a computer-generated read-out of the food container temperature going back a month, and the delivery receipts have a block confirming the container temperature at the point of delivery. Even the temperature in the vans dropping off meat and fish is checked at the time of delivery.
The company does charge a delivery fee, but most caterers do the same if delivering to an airport some distance from where the kitchen is located, according to Hulme.
Not Your Standard Fare
Alison Price On Air cuisine is “quite a bit more complex” than the usual fare, Hulme said. “A bit more complex” might be attributed to an English gift for understatement.
A seafood bisque, for example, gets a lift with crab tortellini and toasted almonds. A “simple” rack of lamb comes with fondant potato, leek and fine-bean wrap, tomato chutney and lamb jus with rosemary. A vegetarian main dish consists of butternut and spiced lentil tian with mustard seed and tomato chutney and chermoula dressing. And the triple steamer basket includes duck rice paper rolls with choices of spring onion, cucumber and plum sauce, green papaya and mango salad with lime and palm sugar dressing, and Asian crusted salmon with egg noodles and coriander pesto.
A children’s menu includes chicken fajitas with creamed avocado, tomato salad, grated cheese, sour cream, lettuce and tortilla wraps. Also available for the kids is a chocolate fondue box with melted white and milk chocolate dipping sauce with strawberries, honeycomb, marshmallows and sponge fingers.
Hulme is convinced that, based on the number of orders, desserts are the most popular items. Consider a three-chocolate mille-feuille with hazelnut dacquoise, raspberry and passion fruit compote, caramel and chocolate sauce, or a passion fruit glazed meringue tart with blueberries and sesame brittle.
Alison Price On Air filled its first order early last year, and the company is taking care not to grow beyond its ability to provide consistently high-quality cuisine, created specifically for storage and service and consumption in the stratosphere.
“We’re consciously not growing too fast,” said Hulme. “We’re part of a bigger brand. And while we’re creating a revolution in business aviation catering, it has to be at a pace that will allow us to maintain the quality of the cuisine.
“We can say we have the best produce and the best chefs,” he concluded. “But ultimately, the proof is on the plate.”