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Any regular airline passenger will tell you there is a special place in hell reserved for aeroplane food, but when you are paying upwards of $8,000 an hour to charter a large-cabin private jet, bad food is something that can no longer be excused.
There are a number of problems with serving food at 40,000 ft. For starters, your taste buds become less perceptive, as you lose your taste of salt by up to 50 per cent (although for newer private jets that have a lower atmospheric pressure, this is less of an issue). Then there is the low humidity of the cabin, which weakens your sense of smell – and further diminishes your ability to taste – and can cause any food on board to dry up.
A skilled chef can get around these problems by seasoning their food with sea salt, making better use of sauce and packing their recipes with rich ‘umami’ flavours, using ingredients such as soy sauce, shiitake mushrooms and slow-cooked stocks. But cooking for private jet passengers is not only about flavour, it is more importantly about hygiene and safety.
“Food can sit in what’s known as the ‘danger zone,’ which is between 8 degrees and 68-70 degrees, for up to 90 minutes,” says Daniel Hulme, CEO of On Air Dining, based at Stansted Airport’s Diamond Hangar. “Anything longer than that that and there is enough bacteria on the food to cause food poisoning.”
Hulme is concerned about the business aviation industry’s blasé attitude towards food safety; he tells stomach-churning stories about corporate flight attendants that pick up hot food from high-end restaurants only to transport it in the back of a taxi and store it the aircraft’s lavatory before re-heating. But when most private jet flights last less than two hours, it is easy to understand why catering is not being discussed at the dinner table.
Alex Wilcox, CEO of California-based operator JetSuite, says he will happily liaise with local restaurants whenever a passenger requests an inflight meal, but as an operator of short-range private jets, he says: “For those that want a meal on board we will handle that, but it is not a massive issue.”
Likewise, Wheels Up, which operates a large fleet of King Air 350i turboprops, will soon allow its members to book catering using a smartphone app, but David Baxt, president, says that for such short haul flights, passengers rarely request anything more than light snacks.
For VistaJet, which includes much larger private jet types such as the Bombardier Global 6000 in its fleet, the story is very different. “I never understand why business jet operators order catering from the airport; you get plastic trays with a cheese board. It is not what you would do if you were taking friends on a picnic,” says Thomas Flohr, founder and chairman. “Our clients all have favourite restaurants across the world and expect more when they are flying.”
In the US, companies like Rudy’s Inflight Catering at Teterboro Airport and Tastefully Yours in Atlanta, Georgia are proving that aviation catering can be big business. They work with operators and FBOs, as well as the people in the back of the private jet, preparing gourmet meals in their own kitchen facilities and picking up exotic dishes from local restaurants if they have been requested by a customer.
VistaJet extended its commitment to inflight dining when it paired-up with Nobu, a world-renowned Japanese restaurant, for flights leaving London, New York, Los Angeles and Dubai. “Nobu Matsuhisa is a friend of mine and we discussed this,” says Flohr. “It was not easy to arrange and we put a lot of work into finding out what works.”
As a long-haul operator, Flohr accepts that it is harder to offer this kind of service on short-haul flights. “Our quality of service is one of the key reasons people fly with us and it is hard to distinguish yourselves on a 35 or 45 minute hop. This is one of the reasons we have switched to larger aircraft.”
For Hulme, it is absurd that a multinational corporation could fly its executives on a private jet to an important business meeting, only to risk them spending two days doubled-up in a hotel room with food poisoning.
“I’m surprised that more people don’t get food poisoning. I’m sure it is happening a lot, but people don’t really talk about it,” Hulme says.
“I don’t understand why there isn’t more emphasis on the training of flight attendants to make sure that they all have food certificates, which isn’t a requirement in business aviation, but it really, really should be.”
One veteran charter broker says that he agrees in principal, but feels it is not a big issue: “I have been booking charter flights for 20 years and we have never had a case of food poisoning. In my experience the ground handling companies take this very seriously and only use approved companies.”
An integral part of private jet catering is the relationship between the caterer and the corporate flight attendant, with the involvement of the flight attendant varying greatly from one flight to another. Sophie Fry, a UK-based corporate flight attendant, says: “You take responsibility of everything from sourcing catering and writing menus to buying supplies for the aircraft.”
Part of On Air Dining’s four-step plan for preparing inflight meals involves using unique packaging to make the flight attendant’s job as easy as possible. This can range from pre-assembling a tuna niçoise to allowing the passenger to pour their own sauce or jus. This attention to detail is clearly appreciated by flight attendants, particularly when working on board smaller aircraft, which offer fewer surfaces and the ability to only heat one meal at a time using a single microwave.
For the last two years, Hulme has served as the vice chairman of the European Corporate Aviation Flight Attendants Committee, which is endorsed by both the National Business Aviation Association and the European Business Aviation Association. As part of On Air Dining, Hulme also provides culinary training free of charge to flight attendants. “We teach them about presentation, but we also bring them in to understand food hygiene and handling,” he says.
“When we hand over our food to a flight attendant, we can be as strict as possible, but if the flight attendant doesn’t store that food properly and somebody gets food poisoning, we’ll get the blame no matter what.”
As well as training corporate flight attendants, Hulme also liaises with high-end restaurants to make them aware of the differences between preparing food on the ground that is consumed later on board an aircraft and cooking food that is served immediately.
“We’ve gone into Michelin-starred restaurants and explained to the chefs how long the process takes and how to cook the dishes,” Hulme says. “We’ve gone through their menu to make sure that when my driver is picking up food and taking it to an aircraft in a cool van, it has been cooked to where it’s needed to be and it has been blast chilled.”
For those uninitiated with the latest culinary techniques, blast chilling is a method where food is placed into a large refrigerator full of fans in order to quickly reduce the temperature of cooked food to below 8 degrees – and essentially, out of the danger zone.
The effect of this method is that it buys time by allowing food that has been cooked on the ground to be transported safely – whether it is by the catering company, the corporate flight attendant or the operator – before it is re-heated and re-plated on board an aircraft.
“When people hold meetings on board an aircraft, the food is a big part, as the passenger can maximise their time rather than sitting in a restaurant for two hours,” says Hulme. “If you ask the person sitting in the back of the aircraft, the service and the food are the most important things in business aviation; I think the industry is started to recognise that more now.”