What is the story behind Airplane food? When and where is the croissant prepared, which we eat at 32,000 feet above sea level? Who arranges the bulk packed meals in the airplane trolley? What does the flight kitchen look like? What is the flow of order of this grand kitchen? And what are the everyday challenges?
I had too many questions in my mind as we drove towards Ambassadors Sky Chef, New Delhi for a media familiarization and food sampling session. Air India, the flag carrier airline of India had arranged for this kitchen visit and I was keenly looking forward to it. For the first time, I was more curious to know the flow of action rather than judge the food for its taste. And of course, we all know that the same platter tastes differently in the sky when we sit in different kind of temperature and air pressure.
Last time when I had traveled to Singapore via Air India, I had noticed on their websites that they serve nearly 21 different types of meals taking into consideration all dietic and religious restrictions. In fact, these days most of the international flights try to give as many options as possible. Food does count as an important in-flight experience. Selection of flight is largely influenced by the availability and quality of meal served on the plane. This session helped me to connect with an important aspect of air travel.
There were two steps to the entry. First, a quick check at the security gate and then the signing of a form declaring that we were free of all kinds of infectious and communicable diseases. We were asked to don a white coat and cover our hair with a net cap. Jewelry and watch had to be removed and hand-wash was a mandate. Yes, I ensured that I tucked in every spec of my hair within the net cap because hygiene was of utmost importance here and there was no scope of error.
Unlike flight kitchens around the world where processed food is mostly obtained and assembled at one place, here we procure the raw materials from outside and process everything in-house, thus we have more checks to do – said one of the senior members of Sky Chef. We were standing in the “RECEIVING ROOM” and this was the starting point of our exploration. This was the section where milk, eggs, meat, vegetables, fruits were received in bulk adhering to a particular schedule. One of the boards on the wall told us that the temperature at which the products were allowed in was equally important and was checked by the staff on duty.
Just opposite to it stood the store room which was nothing less than an in-house grocery shop for spices, pulses, sugar, oats etc. The chefs of the kitchen procure all the needful from here. The way to the cold room, where the perishable items were stored in different sections was right through it.
Before heading to the next section where the vegetables and fruits were peeled and cut, the oozing aroma from the bakery and confectionery section pulled us into the other side of the corridor. All the bread loafs, croissants, cakes and muffins that we consume in the sky is baked here. Chefs could be seen working with big doughs. Here, everyone wore gloves and a head cap and there were strict rules for changing gloves after every change of duty, every two hours or after touching another utensil. I also read through the operating procedures that hung on the wall and learned that only white colored chopping board could be used in this section.
Next, we walked in the “FOOD PRODUCTION AREA”.
There were different rooms and different colors of chopping boards prescribed for each of them to cater to fruits, vegetables, halal meat and seafood respectively. We did not actually enter the room where the cutting and chopping was taking place but looked in through the glass windows. There were machines to take care of peeling and cutting of potatoes. I also noticed that every room had sufficient cleaning mechanism. The whole ambiance was spic and span. There was no sight of dirt or insects.
The next room was one of most busy section. It was the grand kitchen. After the vegetables, fruits and meat were cut and washed thoroughly, they were brought here to be used for cooking. I had never seen a halwai area (the room where desserts were made) as neat as this one. Several dishes were being prepared by experienced chefs. The veg and non-veg were cooked in different areas of the same room. This is where we noticed a process for dishwashing too. The used utensils were sent in from one end and the clean ones came out from the other. Chlorine water was used for all cleaning purposes.
All the prepared food was put in trays and transferred to the “CHILLER” room where the temperature was brought down from 40 degrees celsius to 5-degree celsius. Temperature control is of utmost importance to maintain the quality and taste of the food and to prevent it from spoiling. It is a rule here that all perishable food items are used and consumed within 24 hours.
DISHING OUT – In this section, we saw how a ‘Gold Standard sample’ helped to maintain consistency while packing the salads and fruits. The bowls must be filled alike and must have a comparable weight to keep both the passengers and airlines happy. Every bowl looked as similar as possible. In the other room, we saw the packing of meal trays. A weighing machine helped to maintain consistency. The veg and non-veg areas and people working on them were separate. Yet again, everything was transferred to the cold room. Now, they were ready to be put in the airplane trolleys. We also noticed how Business Class and First Class meals were made fancier than the Economy Class foil trays. They were plated in fine bone china.
Now, once we had looked into the food preparation and final packaging, there was more to look into. While food hygiene is an integral aspect of the flight kitchen, a special attention is given to the cutlery cleaning too. We were directed to the room which introduced us to the cutlery cleaning and polishing process. Here, every lip stain is washed with water at high pressure, cleaned, polished, disinfected, wiped and neatly stacked in racks. Here, we could see the silverware wrapped in napkins. The cups and spoons looked neat and lovely.
Now, what happens to the empty trays that are offloaded from flights coming from other destinations? The used trays are unloaded from the trolleys and put on the conveyor belt where the used bottles, boxed are separated from the tray. The unopened and unused packets of non-perishable food are collected at one place.
Lastly, we were shown how the assembled trays and the addendums were loaded on the airplane trolleys. From here they are put on the vehicle takes these loaded trolleys to the airport. The crew members check for the numbers and load them in the flight. Till the food is served to us, the temperature is maintained through hot cases.
The quality checks have a key role to play in the whole mechanism and thus the Quality Assurance Manger and his team have to be on their toes. We visited his office too on a lower floor. On this floor, we also noticed that there was an entry gate for the workers. They changed dresses first and only then moved to the next floor to start their work.
The most noticeable point about the whole visit was that everything was neat and clean but also well planned. There was no panic of any sort. Even though a large quantity of food was cooked here every day, no was seen running around. Everyone was doing things at their own sweet pace.
And, before we settled down to taste the menu for the day, we relished much more through the eyes. A lot of food samples of Air India flights were up for display. While we relished some really good food, we had a final round of discussion on the challenges of the industry, competition from four other flight kitchens in the same vicinity and the ownership of stakes, inquiries in case of complaints, issues, etc. Overall, it was quite a well-spent day. I love food stories and this was a wonderful find last week. Now onwards, whenever I will eat food in the sky, I will always connect to every aspect of it right from the procurement of the raw materials to the assembly on the tray to its taste.
P.S. – Ambassador’s Sky Chef caters to 21 airlines. The visit to the flight kitchen was arranged by Air India.
All the above pictures were clicked by DIPANSHU GOYAL from DUNIA DEKHO