Last night, UK viewers tuned in to see Michelin-star chef Heston Blumenthal tackle the challenges of serving quality airline food at altitude – part of his TV series, “Mission Impossible”.
Heston – who is on a quest to revolutionalise food at key British institutions – took to the skies in the latest episode to try and raise the culinary standards of in-flight cuisine at British Airways.
Joining a BA flight to Dubai with senior stewards Jackie and Simon, Heston discovered the logistical challenges of serving quality food to passengers in a pressurised cabin- from the convection ovens that can only heat food on two temperature settings, to the confined space in plane galleys.
On the ground, Heston visited BA’s in-flight caterer, Gate Gourmet, who produce the airline’s 17,000 meals a day.
Noting a flaw with the cooking methods of British Airways (and every other airline) who work around the logistical constraints of airplane galleys by pre-cooking food on the ground, Heston set out to cut out the reheating process, with a menu designed to be made from scratch, onboard.
Back in the air, the aircraft galley was in disarray, as Heston and cabin crew struggled to cook the raw salmon and plate up the dishes for 30 business class passengers. While the feedback from passengers was uplifting, Heston’s mission failed, as the time-consuming preparation meant passengers didn’t eat on schedule.
Heston’s next challenge was to persuade an unconvinced Gate Gourmet head chef, Steve Walpole that food tastes different at altitude. The chef eventually sat up and took notice after being proven wrong in a taste and smell experiment in a pressure chamber, which simulates plane cabin conditions.
With the head chef now on board, Heston came up with a cold tray that would avoid any time-consuming cooking, as well as “tantalise the senses”.
With a vision to bring something new and fresh to the in-flight menu, Heston created a “high altitude bento box”, based on ingredients that help food to retain their taste and moisture in the air.
The bento boxes were an assault on the senses – from the mackerel fish, gum strips coated in green tea and lime, pills that turned into scented hand towels and wine gums made with real wine, to orange and beetroot jelly and cold gazpacho soup.
Heston tested the food out on premium passengers on a New York flight, with members of BA’s tasting panel onboard.
Logistical challenges prevailed, as Heston and the crew struggled to set up and serve the trays in one hit, with their complex and intricate layouts.
Before the passengers’ sensory experience on a plate began, they was instructed to clear their noses by spraying a “nasal douche” up each nostril. Despite the obscure request, which failed to impress BA’s tasting panel, passengers were clearly wowed with Heston’s creative culinary touches.
While logistical setbacks led the BA tasting panel to rule out the complex bento boxes on future menus, they agreed there were a few items that could be their “signatures” on board… a breakthrough, at last?
Not quite. Heston’s real game-changer was a recipe that would retain all the flavours in the air, while keeping Gate Gourmet in their jobs on the ground. The answer? A classic British dish with a twist: a seaweed shepherds pie that could be prepared on the ground and rolled out in economy class.
The dish proved to be a huge hit, especially among the economy class crowd and importantly, the tasting panel.
But was this experiment nothing more than a publicity stunt? Will British Airways invest in Heston’s new ideas or continue to serve up unpalatable frozen ready meals in economy class?
The outcome is now in the hands of British Airways. I guess we’ll find out the next time we fly BA, if a seaweed shepherd’s pie happens to land on our tray table…….