How Airline Food Is Made, According to the Experts
The process starts long before you're served dinner in your seat.
Creating thousands of dishes each day, all while picking the right ingredients for the skies and adhering to tight timing can be an immensely complicated feat. To get the full scoop on what goes into creating the food that lands on our trays in the skies, Travel + Leisure stepped into Emirates’ sprawling catering facility in Dubai.
The facility, where meals are made for the airline's flights, its lounges, and for over 100 airlines that fly in and out of Dubai International Airport and Al Maktoum International Airport, is considered the largest of its kind in the world.
And a look inside reveals just how much detail goes into creating a meal before it even makes it to the aircraft.
From how menu items are selected and what ingredients are used to how meals differ within each cabin and the innovative tools used to make it all possible, here’s an inside look at the incredible process.
Maintaining strict hygiene and security when preparing over 20,000 meals a day is essential, which is why the facility has tight measures in place. After going through security, staff are required to wear protective garments, hair nets and shoes to maintain safety on slippery surfaces.
The facility even has an air shower that staff use when entering the production area, standing in the machine to get blasted by air to remove any foreign objects, like hair, from clothing.
Scan and store:
Items coming into the facility need to go through security as well, with products like fruits and vegetables scanned through X-ray machines before they’re put into storage. The items held in storage at the main facility are used within one to two days, with the airline hosting a sprawling storage facility used solely for bulk food items like Basmati rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar, in another location in Dubai.
More than 500 tons of fruits like cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple are used in a year. The airline has over 60 selections of cheese in its network alone, which come from different countries across the globe.
Time is of the essence, which is why once trollies from previous flights land in the facility, all dirty items are removed for staff to clean. There is an entire area devoted to washing items, with staff washing millions of dishes and cutlery sets every day. The facility has eight different machines used to wash items, with even the carts washed after each flight.
Items like pillows, blankets and mattresses are also washed in the facility.
Time to cook:
Since safety regulations often prohibit the use of open-flame grills on commercial aircraft, hot food selections are prepared beforehand and then frozen to specific temperatures (which are checked by an in-house hygiene team) and then reheated by cabin crew members using convection ovens in the aircraft.
Kitchens are split between an area devoted solely to cold food selections, an area for hot food selections and a kitchen for pastries and desserts.
In the cold kitchen, staff will dish out items that include fruit platters, sandwiches and appetizers like the canapés offered to first class passengers. The airline works with chefs from Dom Pérignon to create specialty canapes, with options that range from confit duck with curried pineapple to a poached prawn and guacamole tartlet.
Catering to each cabin:
Most first-class dishes are plated onboard, while business class dishes are pre-plated for crew to add the last final garnishes onboard. All economy dishes are pre-plated in the facility. Everything from salad dressings to soy sauces that accompany dishes are prepared beforehand to ensure crew can have a meal service that runs efficiently.
In the hot kitchen area, all food items are cooked until they reach a core temperature of about 149 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, they’re placed on a conveyor belt to go through a spiral glass chiller.
A dedicated hygiene department checks chilled items for temperature, with all food items barcoded with their quality and temperature and taken into storage. Chefs will prepare meals eight hours before a flight, with hot food items having a shelf life of 72 hours, though the team typically works within a 43-hour time period.
Planning and prepping:
Emirates updates its menu monthly, working with regional partners in each location to create dishes suited specifically to the area. Since chefs need to import certain ingredients, like meat and seafood, orders need to be placed as far as eight months in advance, which is why the airline is already working on their menu selections for 2020.
Picking the right ingredients:
For James Griffith, vice president of culinary at Emirates, while commercial aircraft provide a more dry atmosphere and higher pressure, the advances in today's aircraft make having a meal in the skies similar to having a meal in the Alps. To combat these slight variations, the airline focuses on providing ingredients that have strong, sweet and pungent flavors that include acidic foods like tomatoes and olive oil, and citrus-based ingredients like passion fruit.
The airline even use a specialty cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil created by the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio in Umbria, where olives are still picked by hand.
Stews, spices, and stocks:
Indian dishes are also a popular option to use thanks to the heavy use of spices, which help maintain flavor. Griffith also finds that sauces work best for reheating dishes to maintain moisture, which is why options like osso buco and beef bourguignon are popular choices.
Tricky treats to take to the skies:
A difficult item to prepare for flights is steak, due to the fact that crew members need to reheat hundreds of them to particular consistencies. Whole muscle meats are typically seared on all sides and cooked until the color changes, with crew then required to follow specific temperature and cooking guidelines to ensure it comes out in the right temperature for a passenger.
Bread can also be a tricky item, since it needs to be refrigerated for hygiene purposes, which can cause it to dry out.
Bread can also quickly dry out when left open in dry aircraft cabins, which is why staff reduce baking time for services like afternoon tea, where sliced bread is used. This is the same reason why sandwiches or items with sliced breads are typically tightly packed until opened for consumption to help them stay soft for as long as possible.
Sometimes, carriers add additives to prevent foods like these from drying out, according to Griffith, but Emirates' bakers are adamant about using natural products, which is why the team spend time finding a high-quality French flour that helps breads maintain their texture longer.
Meals for economy and crew:
Serving and clearing meal services for some 300 passengers can be a complex process, which is why when it comes to economy meals the airline has shifted from whole muscle meats to items like stews with cubed portions. Crew members also have a separate menu, which typically includes selections like salad and packed sandwiches, which are also prepared in the facility.
Pastry items can also be one of the most difficult items to prepare since they have tighter time restrictions due to ingredients like gelatins. They only have a 48-hour allowance from the time they’re prepared to when they’re served, with transportation of the foods by trucks to the aircraft taking 40 minutes alone.
The pastry process:
Pastries for economy are made on an assembly line and typically include three components: something with texture like cookie crumbs or chocolate pieces, a mousse (typically passion fruit or mango) and a garnish on top. Premium cabin pastries are prepared by hand on tables, though all desserts are made fresh as opposed to frozen, which does mean a shorter shelf life but helps to ensure higher quality.
The facility is home to innovative instruments like the hydro processor, which uses high-pressure water to cut through pieces of cake to ensure uniform sizes and minimal waste. The pressure is so strong that it can even cut through bone, which is why the airline also uses it to cut meats.
The airline also has an electric monorail system that it uses to transport meal carts throughout the massive facility. The monorail spans more than 8,000 feet in length and has drop-off and pick-up points throughout the facility.
Prepped and plated:
In the flight preparation area, staff will put together tray sets to precise specifications and load them onto trolleys that will then be transported through the monorail system. This way, cabin crew simply need to heat the food selections and load them onto the plated trays during in-flight service. Every product has its own position, with 1,000 trays done in 11 hours. Staff have photographs showing how each tray should be plated, with trays assembled into carts that are then stored into chillers and arranged for each flight.
Down to the detail:
No detail is spared, with staff manually wiping and rolling more than 20,000 sets of cutlery in 24 hours.
There are even guidelines on how cutlery should look on the plate, with the airline remaining one of the few that continues to use stainless steel cutlery on economy cabins as well.
Adding the last touches:
In-flight magazines, amenity kits and the range of regional wines and spirits found on flights are also prepped in the facility.
As the last steps approach, staff are often ready for unexpected changes that can include a last minute request (passengers sometimes come on a new flight as little as one hour before departure) and changes in aircraft that can mean varied needs for amenities like blankets and linens based on the configuration.
The trucks used to transport the trolleys have refrigeration to keep food at the right temperatures, and in cases of delays, if the airline can keep food items temperature controlled, it will hold them on the aircraft.
Once everything is ready, the trolleys are loaded onto trucks that then transport materials to the aircraft. Thanks to the large size of the Airbus A380, Emirates has even created a special truck suited just for the aircraft.
The high loader was made to accommodate the upper first-class galley located above the wing, allowing it to safely lift over the wing and extend to the fuselage without tipping over and damaging the wing. A loading platform also allows the high loader to avoid wind issues thanks to the large heights it can reach.