I might start with the terrine of foie gras, shaved asparagus, truffle oil, and toasted brioche from Cathay Pacific. Then I’ll enjoy a few canapés of cured duck with saffron poached peach and a glass of Dom Pérignon 2005 from Emirates. Then maybe chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s black cod with lemon—it doesn’t appear to be the exact same dish that I’ve had on the ground at Nobu, in which the fish has been soaked in a miso and sake mixture for days before searing a perfectly sweet and salty and funky charred skin—but since I'm at 30,000 feet on a Qatar Airways plane, it will have to do.
I really should stop—oh but if you insist—I’ll take the grilled veal chop with leek soubise and cherry compote from Singapore Airlines. But that’s it. No sundae. No cheese service. No caviar. I’m full—until their flight attendants wake me in the morning to cook my eggs made to order.
This is first-class dining on the world’s most elite airlines. It’s the upper crust of the $13 billion in-flight catering industry, which has recruited a small army of world-renowned chefs to impress customers accustomed to luxury—customers who might have spent as much as $20,000 for their seats.
For flight crews, the challenges are many. Food has to be cooked before it’s brought onto the plane—due to a mixture of regulations and practicality. So caterers prepare dishes, flash cool them (rapidly chill to a temperature just above freezing), and see that they’re delivered to the right plane among a million other meals going out that day. Then it’s up to flight attendants, who are not allowed to use sharp knives or open flames, to reheat and often plate the meal. For this task, they have either convection or steam ovens: Qatar Airlines has actually developed a multi-zone combination oven with various heats and humidities to heat different items to different temperatures. Singapore Airlines has even been known to undercook their proteins, such as beef and chicken, on the ground to be finished in the air.
Meanwhile, in the quest for the best flavor, Air France has enlisted Daniel Boulud, who is developing an approach to airline dining that seems obvious in retrospect: Create dishes, such as soups or stews, that traditionally taste better reheated the next day. Depending on the airline, each item may be heated in a shallow aluminum pan—which can be precarious when turbulence hits. (For more info on cooking in turbulence, check out this classic story by a Pan Am flight attendant who, due to a mix up of food service, had to crack and cook eggs for 100 people.)
Airlines are also pushing the boundaries on the fresh-food prep equipment they can keep on board. Singapore Airlines, which invests $500 million a year in its food service, has rice cookers and toasters, for instance, to prepare these simple, carb-bomb pleasures as well as they can be made on the ground. (They refuse to tell me how they cook their eggs, incidentally, calling it a "closely guarded secret.")
In the end, every airline and chef has to work against the inherent problem with eating in the air: No matter what you serve, the dry air of an airplane diminishes a passenger’s ability to taste food. That's why Virgin Atlantic doesn’t shortchange the briney olives in their latest menu, and bold reds are in ready supply with any wine service. Indeed, if there ever was such a thing as a first-world problem, fine dining at 700 mph would be it. Peruse the slideshow above to see the delectable creations for travelers who operate on unlimited budgets.