First published on 5 Oct 2010. Updated on 5 Oct 2010.
Many years ago, ‘airline food’ meant bland, boring meals that gave microwaved dinners a run for their money. But times have changed. The trays may still look the same, but the contents have changed drastically. The leap in quality is seen to best effect in Singapore Airlines’ recently released tome, Above & Beyond.
For a better understanding of how the food ends up 30,000ft in the air, we visited the Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) catering facility next to the Budget Terminal. Here, amid tight security, 50,000 Singapore Airlines meals are produced each day. Everything is blast-chilled to -5°C, colour-coded and computerised with a barcode: there is no room for error.
In minutes, supervisors can trace who cooked and plated each dish. Most amusing is the circular omelette machine, which automatically spurts out the exact amount of beaten eggs, while four cooks flip the pans to create 5,000 perfect omelettes daily.
At the casserole assembly kitchen, assembly line chefs dish out meals into the airline trays according to a photo guide. Precision is key: 60g of steamed vegetables, one battered fish fillet, 40ml of sweet and sour sauce, and 80g of steamed rice. Not a single green pea more.
There is an air of seriousness in the kitchen. No one laughs or giggles. The man behind this precision cooking is SATS executive chef Rick Stephen. The 53-year-old Australian – he’s been cooking professionally since he was 14, working in hotels in Canada, the US, and all over Australia – leads an army of 400 chefs and cooks to produce this high-flying cuisine.
The sprawling facility, the size of six basketball courts, is large enough to contain 12 kitchens: from dim sum and Indian to pastry and even an executive casserole assembly. Stephen also oversees the preparation of 2,000 to 3,000 specialised dietary requests, including everything from low-fat, gluten-free, sugar-free, baby-friendly food to low-calorie, low-salt, lactose-free meals, or seafood, vegan, Jain vegetarian, kosher, Hindu and even fruitarian recipes.
And since our olfactory senses are less receptive at 30,000ft above the ground, a pressurised cabin simulates cruising altitude conditions so that chefs can make the necessary flavour adjustments. So, after a full day producing 50,000 meals to be served up in the air, what does an executive chef eat? ‘Last night I had a Vegemite toast with cheese,’ he sheepishly admits.