14 Feb 2017

Inflight Entertainment

Seared Fillet of Beef with Garlic Mustard Seed Butter, with mushrooms, baby carrot, green beans and sauteed potatoes. Or maybe Roast Duck Breast with Cherry Sauce, with braised red cabbage, carrot, fine beans and roasted potatoes. Or perhaps you prefer the Braised Snapper Fillet in Black Bean sauce, with seasonal vegetables and egg noodles? Followed by a Serendipity Mango Sorbet or a Black Currant and Cheese Mousse Cake with vanilla ice cream? 

Yes, I am spoiled for choice in this most unusual of restaurants, situated in a pressurized metal tube 11'000 meters above the Australian outback, traveling at 900km/h on my return from the international airport that is the furthest of any from my homebase.

This is a long journey, and I am very fortunate to take it at the pointy end of said metal tube, where the seats are well upholstered and the legroom as ample as the wine list. For airlines need to justify the 5 – 10x premium they charge on those seats over the ones in the back, which arrive at the destination just as fast and safe, albeit less comfortably.

The ability to stretch out and sleep on a flat surface is the main reason why affluent travelers (or those with a stack of frequent flyer miles to burn, wink wink) splurge on Business or even First Class. Above and beyond that, though, there is the spectacle of the in-flight meal service. The more exclusive the airline in question, the more extravagant the catering provided.

On this trip, I have been offered everything from a seasonal Imperial Japanese kaiseki meal to an airborne version of Raclette, to the braised Peking Duck from a separate “Book the Cook” selection of special meals to be ordered in advance. Each airline I have traveled with goes the extra mile to showcase regional specialties, rare wines, exquisite tableware and generally elaborate decorum.

Mother-of-pearl caviar spoons? Check. Sterling silver saucière? Check. Electric candlelight? Check. Cast-iron Japanese tea pots? But of course. If you think the pilots' pre-departure checklist is exhaustive, you have not spoken to the catering company.

No matter how fancy the presentation, it ultimately remains airplane food: Pre-cooked hours or days in advance, shock-frozen, reheated in aluminum containers in a convection oven, plated in a tiny aircraft galley, and consumed at cabin pressure and humidity that essentially numbs your taste buds.

I love every moment of it! On a plane, I am the ultimate captive audience, and what else would I have to do other than to enjoy the spectacle of a multi-course meal? The sheer silliness, from the exalted menu descriptions to the cornucopia of bowls, plates and stemware, makes it so appealing. And observing how various national carriers differ in delivering the same basic item (compare coffee service on American, Austrian and Arab airlines) tells you more about their respective cultures than any travel guide would.

United offered “brown tea”, while Air China has a separate tea menu. Turkish Airlines wheels a mezze cart down the aisle, while Swiss comes around with boxes of chocolate. Asiana's flight attendants prepared a table-side bibimbap for me, British Airways serves (literally) High Tea. Singapore Airlines, which is responsible for the wording at the beginning of this post, gives passengers a choice between Krug and Dom Perignon champagnes. And Air Canada? To put it kindly, its catering is as modest as its home country.

None of this is relevant a few rows further back on an airplane, where the choice, universally and unenviably, is between rubber chicken and overcooked pasta. But for the lucky ones in seat 2A, what better way could there be to pass the time aloft? Perhaps the caterer's logo at the bottom of a recent Turkish Airlines menu says it best. It reads: Gourmet Entertainment.

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