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Airlines put flights of fancy on the menu

Local. Seasonal. Farm to fold-out table.
Grilled zucchini with quinoa, pine nuts, mint and feta, one of the dishes served on Qantas Airways’ first- and business-class menus. Photo: Qantas Airways

Local. Seasonal. Farm to fold-out table. Not exactly the set of foodie-forward buzzwords one normally applies to airline food, but they best reflect the current culinary trend for a number of carriers that are collaborating with pedigreed chefs to elevate inflight dining experiences for long-haul passengers travelling around the globe.

Leading the way among those airlines is Qantas, which last year marked the 20-year anniversary of a culinary partnership with celebrated chef Neil Perry, Qantas’ creative director of food, beverage and service and head of the Rockpool Dining Group’s ever-growing Down Under restaurant empire. Four times a year to mark the changing of the seasons, Perry and a team of consultants brainstorm food and cocktail recipes and roll out new, gourmet menus as they strive to translate their own top-shelf restaurant experiences into unparalleled culinary exploits at 35,000 feet.

In the longest collaboration of its kind in aviation history, Perry’s first- and business-class menus on domestic and international Qantas flights – which will be refreshed on direct flights between Sydney and Vancouver beginning June 30 – have included appetizers such as Moroccan-spiced carrot soup with coriander yogurt and dukkah croutons, and tuna poke salad with wakame and sesame soy dressing; and mains such as fried manchego and black bean tamale with tomatillo salsa and green pepita sauce, and seared Cone Bay barramundi with herbed garlic potatoes, broccolini, lemon, olive and almond salsa. Qantas also taps a team of Rockpool sommeliers and mixologists to provide labels and recipes for the airline’s array of wines and cocktails.

The swing toward serving gourmet inflight fare and embarking on partnerships with high-profile chefs has also become a mainstay for two of Canada’s major airlines in recent years, with Air Transat and Air Canada aligning themselves with acclaimed culinary talents in Montreal’s Daniel Vézina and Vancouver’s David Hawksworth, respectively.

For Air Transat – a carrier that in 2017 shuttled 4.5 million passengers to 26 countries and was named best North American leisure airline for the sixth straight year by Skytrax – its collaboration with Vézina is one that not only allows the airline to stoke the senses of its passengers in both club and economy class but also lets the award-winning chef proudly showcase his penchant for incorporating local, sustainably sourced ingredients in his signature creations.

One of La Belle Province’s most renowned chefs, Vézina is the owner of two Laurie Raphaël restaurants in Quebec City and Montreal and the new, health food-focused La Serre in Quebec City. He is also a culinary writer and the host of several cooking shows.

The third edition of the airline’s biannual Chef’s Menu program by Vézina is a summer/fall bill of fare that debuted May 1 and offers travellers such dishes as pork filet mignon with Quebec blueberries and chicken cordon bleu garnished with smoked meat, all served with a cheese plate, dessert and glass of wine – complimentary in club class and available for $25 for those in economy.

“I highlight products from regions that are close to my heart,” said Vézina in a press release. “It’s quite stimulating for a chef to constantly renew himself while working within the specific constraints of the airline industry without compromising standard and quality.”

In 2015, Air Canada embarked on a culinary journey of its own when it announced it was joining forces with Hawksworth in an effort to capture the attention of its passengers on both plate and palate alike. Featuring a range of regional, seasonally informed dishes that included such initial entries as yellowfin tuna tataki with scallion ginger vinaigrette, passion fruit and puffed rice; tamari-roasted sablefish with bok choy, brown rice and chili miso vinaigrette; and dark chocolate fondant with blueberry compote, Hawksworth’s unique creations are available to both business-class flyers in the air and Maple Leaf Lounge visitors on the ground in airports across the country. The airline also enlists the services of an accredited, award-winning sommelier who carefully curates the airline’s ever-changing selection of wines, hand-picked to pair perfectly with the inflight cuisine.

It’s an exciting and brave new world up among the clouds for culinary aficionados, said Nik Loukas, founder of the airline food-service database and blog known as Inflightfeed.

“It’s great that airlines are investing in their inflight catering by working with celebrity chefs,” said Loukas, who launched in 2012 and now sees as many as 80,000 visitors a month to the site, which offers an in-depth dive into the inflight offerings of more than 150 airlines. “Some of it is pure marketing, but some of the programs are set up to create some truly special inflight experiences, like on Qantas’ new Perth-to-London flights where Neil Perry’s team created [the Sleep Sooner Menu] to help alleviate jet lag.

“Some airlines are really trying to raise the bar in terms of flavour profiles, even in economy class. If you know which airlines to stick to, you can generally have a nice dining experience, and if you’re lucky enough to be flying in first or business class, many airlines are moving towards more of a restaurant style of food service.”

Underscoring a renewed focus on sourcing local and sustainable ingredients for airline meals, Loukas points to a small Swedish carrier named Kullaflyg that was founded in 2003 and used seasonal organic produce, produced its own honey and worked with local bakers to provide pastries and breads for its inflight offerings, as well as Korean Air, which operates its own farm on the South Korean island of Jeju where it bottles its own water, raises chickens and cows and grows produce that is eventually used to create passenger meals.

Another new, notable local provider of premium inflight meals is Vancouver’s Dynasty Seafood Restaurant, where executive chef Sam Leung and dim sum head chef Garley Leung have developed a business-class menu for Hong Kong Airlines flights departing Vancouver. The menu includes high-altitude versions of such popular Dynasty dishes as baked mince pork pie and hand-shredded smoked chicken. Hong Kong Airlines also enlisted the services of award-winning Vancouver drink alchemist David Wolowidnyk to shake up a signature Bauhinia cocktail available on the airline’s Skybar that mingles Rémy Martin XO cognac, champagne, freshly pressed grape juice, tea and lemon in a libation named for the flower depicted in the airline’s logo. 

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