A question of taste

posted on 11th June 2018

Alison Price On Air has become the must-have aviation caterer by recognising the difficult conditions flight attendants often face when presenting a tempting meal on board 

Alison Price On Air (APOA), the gourmet aviation caterer, has trained almost 70 flight attendants in its London kitchens since the company launched two years ago.

Demand for fine dining from the business aviation community is increasing, but suppliers are “still stuck in the 1980s” both in terms of food and presentation, according to Daniel Hulme, director of inflight services at APOA.

Hulme devised a way of blast chilling and vacuum packing the cooked food in a way that takes up little space while preserving its essential quality. The system cannot be patented and Hulme is secretive about the precise technique. Although competitors are gradually working out how it’s done, he claims to have a few more tricks up his sleeve yet.

The most critical aspect of APOA’s work, however, is to train those tasked with delivering high-quality meals in mid-air – a very different scale of challenge from the outside catering in which Alison Price made its name.

For events on the ground, the company cooks, cools and transports food to the venue in much the same way, but its own team will travel to the temporary on-site kitchen to reheat and serve the meals.

“In the air we have no control,” Hulme says. Flight attendants will do their best in often cramped conditions, yet he knows what to expect if the quality of service falls below expectations or there is a food safety issue (though he insists the latter has not happened yet). “The supplier will always get the blame, even if the food has been badly handled on board,” he says.

APOA’s one-day course, offered free of charge to small groups of flight attendants from client companies, focuses on understanding the importance of quality produce, selecting a good, balanced menu, and developing better handling skills on board the aircraft, including hygiene and food safety.

Around 20 flight attendants have gone on to take more intensive, paid-for two-day courses. Delivered by APOA in partnership with Swiss-based flight attendant education specialist Training Solutions, these courses highlight trends in international cuisine, explain the art of food and wine matching, and take participants through the complexities of delivery procedures and airport security.

APOA has supplied more than 70 companies, of which 40 are now regular clients, and mainly serves business airports in south-east England such as Luton, Stansted, Farnborough and Biggin Hill. Essential to its success is ease of airside access, and the company worked hard in recent months to meet the Department for Transport’s stringent security requirements at these locations. “Providing the service with minimal interruption from security inspections means we can be more efficient and ensures the products are delivered at their best,” Hulme says.

All catering is screened and placed in locked refrigerators with numbered security tags before leaving the company’s premises. Two members of staff – all of whom undergo criminal record checks before joining APOA – accompany each delivery to the aircraft.

“It’s a challenging and expensive business,” Hulme says. “Top clients understand this. They’re demanding, but they know you get what you pay for.”

A chef since the age of 16, Hulme is now 32 and has worked around the world. It was while working for a catering company in Spain with many private clients, including yacht owners, that he saw a chance to improve standards in aviation catering. He had acted as an occasional freelance caterer for Alison Price from around 2003 and after drawing up his aviation business plan, knew the company was his best prospect as a partner. APOA finally launched in May 2010.

Aside from the practical difficulties of preparing dishes in a compact aircraft galley, there are many other aspects of food served at altitude, and stored over long periods, that the caterer has to bear in mind if its clients are to enjoy a restaurant-style experience.

Dehydration is a factor, and APOA has come up with various ways of retaining moisture in food. Food also loses 50% of its taste in the air and commercial airlines tend to compensate for this by over-seasoning. Hulme prefers using sea salt to regular salt, but points out that there are other, more creative ways of retaining flavour such as incorporating wild mushrooms into stock.

Non-starters include game birds or scallops, which are easy to overcook, and APOA would even recommend against burgers, which may seem a tempting option to some customers. If they are pre-assembled back on the ground and the bread in contact with the meat for too long, the texture will suffer.

APOA prefers to know a client’s requirements by 1700 on the day before departure. Orders can be taken up to 1900 but any later than that makes it difficult to maintain the quality on which the company trades, particularly where non-standard items are required.

The majority of clients are happy with APOA’s seasonal summer and winter menus, which go through weeks of pre-testing. Hulme warns that a simplified menu will be offered for the Olympic period, when the company expects to be servicing 30 to 40 flights per day, and clients will have more limited off-menu options.

Most flights catered by APOA are from two to four hours within Europe, and typically have between two and six passengers on board. On a longer sector, such as to the US, a second serving may be required and this is where flight attendants are really tested.

The company tries to head off potential problems if items such as shellfish are requested. “We ask flight attendants where the food will be stored, and for how long. We have to be strict with them,” Hulme says. “If you’re not going to store a shellfish platter in a fridge, we won’t send you one. There’s a fine line between giving the client what they want and protecting your own reputation.”

While today’s clients appreciate the importance of good food in enhancing the business or leisure experience of their guests, Hulme says his staff “very rarely serve to a full plane”. He wishes owners could avoid the “design madness” of chopping the galley in half to squeeze in one more seat.

He regularly sees Challenger 300-sized galleys on long-haul aircraft, or hot meal storage arrangements more suitable for a low-cost airline squeezed in behind the luxury fitments of a BBJ or ACJ. In these situations, he concedes it is not easy for flight attendants to attain Michelin star level every time. But APOA is determined to give them the best possible tools for the job.