During October, On Air Dining announced a new cooperation with Moët Hennessy and Victor. The inflight food specialist has created a series of dishes optimised to accompany a special, hand-picked selection of Moët Hennessy Dom Pérignon Champagne and wines. Launched on 10 October, the fine dining experience is available on flights departing airports in the London area and arranged through charter specialist Victor.
It’s an arrangement that demonstrates On Air’s willingness and ability to optimise dishes while also extending its reach to a new customer base. CEO Daniel Hulme explains: “We created a dish to suit each Champagne or wine. It’s the first time it’s been done, and we obviously worked with aviation in mind. In effect, we’ve produced a unique, bespoke menu to suit Dom Pérignon.”
Hulme is excited about the opportunity, but reckons exceptional food done exceptionally well remains the solid foundation of On Air’s wider business. But providing great food aboard a business or VIP aircraft is about much more than fresh, premium ingredients and beautiful presentation.
“The dry, relatively low pressure environment typical of an aircraft cabin effectively neautralises 50% of a passenger’s ability to taste, mostly through reducing the taste of salt. We design dishes to compensate, carefully selecting ingredients that introduce umami [savoury] flavour – it’s found in soy sauce, seaweed, shiitake mushrooms and tomatoes, for example. It causes saliva generation at the back of the mouth, enhancing taste – soy sauce tastes salty, but in fact it’s umami having the same effect as salt on the mouth.
“It can also be quite noisy in the cabin and noise has its own effect on how we taste food. We perceive a great deal of taste through smell and the lack of water in the atmosphere has a significant effect on how well the nose works; the dryness and pressure in the cabin make it a harsh environment for eating. So we add umami into the food and incorporate ingredients that introduce water, using a number of modern techniques.”
The essence of On Air Dining’s capability is found in its chefs, described by Hulme as a ‘large team’. “They work 24 hours, cooking our food and assembling it – we can make almost anything. We send a photo guide to the aircraft showing the flight attendant how to recreate the dish to the same standard. Many of our clients have ovens on their aircraft, but some only have a microwave, so we’ve had to produce something of a generic product for a bespoke market.”
The very idea of employing a microwave to produce a fine dining experience seems contradictory, but Hulme says it’s all about the cooking process. “We use gentle techniques so that when food goes into the microwave it hasn’t already been ‘through the wringer’ and its integrity is retained. We also employ a number of other ‘tricks’…”. He wouldn’t be drawn on the details.
Freezing is an obvious option for food storage, perhaps enabling clients with a freezer on the aircraft to cater for multiple meals on a longer flight or a multi-leg trip, but although the taste may be retained, the appearance might be less than perfect. “We occasionally send food out to meet an aircraft on multi-leg trips too.”
Flight attendant training is key to in-air quality and Hulme says: “We do a culinary course where we teach flight attendants modern presentation skills and how to use the product. It’s really important. We’ve also adopted all kinds of equipment over the years, including simple items like fine tweezers and delicate paintbrushes. They’re just little tricks of the trade really, and we teach them on the course so they can take the techniques away with them. Working with the flight attendants also helps our chefs understand the challenges they face on the aircraft.”
With a well-developed aversion to seafood, your correspondent perhaps notices more than most how often it features in images of fine dining aboard executive aircraft. It may exemplify freshness and showcase culinary technique, but one could be forgiven for thinking it’s the staple of the business and VIP aviation world. What of the humble burger, for example, a simple dish easily overcomplicated and one that presents a particular challenge to do well on an aeroplane?
Quality Real Food
“We’re launching a new menu very soon and it includes a burger. We actually do them all the time, but the new menu takes us back to chef roots. It’s all about ‘real food’. We still have our fine dining menu, which is what we’re known for, and we already offer a quality sandwich and a great burger. So, we’re re-engineering our menus to offer more ‘real food’ with On Air quality, using great produce, where it’s all about the story of UK-sourced ingredients rather than creating complex dishes.
“It includes an amazing burger and we’ve developed techniques to ensure it is amazing. That means the home-cooked chips that some with it are still crispy after they’ve been in the microwave – you wouldn’t believe how much work we’ve done to make sure our triple-cooked chips don’t come out soggy!
“We’ve also worked hard on getting the burger meat right, carefully deciding how much umami flavour to put into it, how we cook it and how it’s reheated on the aircraft. We’ve developed a technique where it retains its integrity and the caramelisation on the top and bottom surfaces. Of course, you don’t want to put the bun in the microwave, but we’ve chosen a bread roll that warms and toasts nicely, even in a poor quality oven. The rest of it – the salad and garnish – is easy.”
Interestingly, although On Air offers extensive menu options, Hulme reckons around half the food it creates is not from the menu. That variation is down to individual customer requirements, food allergies and other drivers – the company is the only inflight food producer with two fully halal kitchens. “For this flexibility I describe us as a food concierge company rather than a caterer.”
Thanks to the expertise of its chefs and an extensive support network that includes refrigerated vans and high loaders, On Air Dining is successfully delivering exceptional food. Hulme says the company is an active adopter of new technology and systems and: “We’re constantly innovating in how we develop and use food. We have our fine dining menu and our new menu is all about real food done well, with On Air quality. It’s all about the story of the produce, which UK producer made the cheese, where is the fish sourced? Our fine dining has been perceived by some as expensive – although I believe you pay for quality – but the new menu offers food at an extremely competitive price. I think it’ll see us get into the more price-conscious areas of the market – people have loved our initial pitches with it.”
Daniel Hulme is enthused by good food in an industry justly enthused by technology and aircraft performance. For the regular flyer, used to the convenience and comfort of long-range executive travel, the aircraft, connectivity and cabin quality become exceptional expectations, but the food? Well, that can easily become the defining difference.