Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lufthansa LSG Sky Chef - Culinary Excellence in the Air: Behind the Scenes


Many of us had our fair share of rants on plane food, no matter what class you are travelling in. Common complaints are often related to the lack of flavours, the level of moisture of your rice or perhaps how tough your beef is. True that in some cases, the quality of the food varies a lot depending on the airlines and their respective catering services, however, I often feel that many passengers forget the fact that they are having their meals at 35,000 feet, inside a pressurized environment with humidity close to 10% or even lower. To prepare food at this high altitude is no easy task and more challenging than many would expect. I always know how the boiling point would reduce to around 80C at that altitude which affects the temperature of the food being consumed after the reheating process. However, my recent visits to one of the world's largest airline catering service providers Lufthansa's LSG Sky Chef facilities in Hong Kong turned out to be quite fruitful in learning more on the limitations as well as regulations of how food must be prepared for safe consumption at 35,000 feet.


The event was sort of a tasting event or behind the scenes visit for Lufthansa's upcoming China Menu for its First Class passengers flying long-haul from China to Germany. One of their initiatives over the past many years is to invite renowned chefs all over the world to participate in their Star Chef program by creating new dishes for the airline's long-haul flights. This year's Star Chef for the China-Germany route is Chef Steve Grein, currently the Executive Chef of the Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai. He created a whole collection of Chinese as well as Western dishes for this project.


While chatting with him, one of the key things I learned was how challenging and different it is to create dishes for passengers at 35,000 feet compared with diners at any given restaurants on ground level. It is a entirely different beast so to speak. With the circumstantial limitation such as the low humidity, many things need to be taken into consideration in the creation process. Just to name a few:

  • (1) most if not all food need to be designed so to be suited for reheating on board without losing too much flavors and moisture
  • (2) At 35,000 feet, not only does the boiling point changes, our taste buds (ie: sensitive) change as well and depending on the dish, extra flavors may need to be added, yet if too much salt are added, salt would absorb the moisture. A great balance must be achieved.
  • (3) For chilled items, the richness of the flavors would be further reduced
  • (4) Portion control is important because there are limited space on board, meals and menus need to be designed accordingly to fit into the custom trays
  • (5) weight of the food is an issue which can affect the overall loading of the flight.

I was surprised by the number of limitations with regards to food preparation at 35,000 feet. From now on, before I complain about my plane food, I certainly will remind myself of the list of limitations and restrictions in preparing the dish. Let's get back to the objective of the event, First Class Hot Menu. Alright, I was quite impressed with the largest selection of the dishes / menu available for the First Class passengers, I guess they paid "extra" for their extra mile for such services. Basically each First Class passenger will be guaranteed their choice of meals instead of a first come first served basis at the Economy Class all all airliners to my understanding. In addition to Welcome Drink, First Class passengers can an Amuse-Bouche as well!!! This Crab Purse, I want!


One of the featured dish was the Slow Roasted Beef Carpaccio Basil Pesto, Parmesan Shavings. Not exactly Carpaccio in terms of rawness but as explained by Chef Fritz Gross of LSG Sky Chef Hong Kong, it is a food safety regulation that raw meat (or semi rareness) cannot be served during flight. Taste wise? Not bad at all as a cold starters on board! The extra sauce is given for the extra richness of flavours at 35,000 feet.

SkyChef-4 SkyChef-6

There were quite a number of dishes being served for tastings, so I will simply list them out there for your reference. Most of the items tasted quite good given the fact that they were all prepared 12 hours ago and reheated during tasting to simulated the real situation as closely as possible. Alright, not at 35,000 feet and First Class environment but let's not get overly technical here okay? :)

Slowly Braised Beef Cheek
Classic Prawn Cocktail
Salmon and Scallop Roulade
Flaked White Fish, Arrugula, Radish Salad
Salmon Tartar, Cucumber-Citrus Vinaigrette
Steamed Pork Belly with Mashed Garlic
Seared Tuna, Carrot Carpaccio
Cherry Glazed Duck Breast, Baby Greens, Dry Cherry Vinaigrette
Marinated Duck Breast
Needle Mushroom and Beef Rolls
Quite a number of choices indeed. It would be an even better experience if I can tour the kitchen but I understand the difficulties in doing so. Aside from a full stomach, what I have learned from today's behind the scene LSG Sky Chef event is how many of us as passengers neglected to look into the efforts put into making airplane food no matter for First or Economy class, the same theories, standards and concepts apply. I do respect the efforts behind airplane food be it a simple dish of salad or a main dish of chicken, beef or fish. Of course I would take a more in depth appreciation of the food if I were sitting First Class for a 12+ hours flight as well!!  And you know what, another fact I found which amazes me as a avid traveller; on selected Boeing 747-400 long-haul configurations, "as well as your comfortable First Class seat, there is a separate bed over two metres long available to you." Let me repeat, "there is a separate bed over two metres long available to you," next to your seat to be exact! A separate bed! Gees, I am still not over the fact that they have a separate bed! Alright, Emirates A380 has a entire SUITE but the flat bed requires manual conversion, not a fixed bed. Well of course Singapore Airline's A380 Suite is a different story. Okay, time to purchase lottery tomorrow.


Accidental Travel Writer said...

Hey Jason! I was at the same event, and I also found it very interesting to learn about the challenges of serving food at 35,000 feet from cramped galleys in ultra dry conditions and pressurized cabins. I also wish that we could have toured the kitchen. Better yet, I'd like to sample some of those dishes at 35,000 feet on my way from Hong Kong to Frankfurt!

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