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Demystifying Airplane Food

VIRGIN_00If you’re flying internationally (or “upper class”) you’ll be reintroduced to food – real food – on an airplane. And you’ll find some of the best on Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

But who thinks about just how that food gets to us?

In search of answers, we sat down at The Base, Virgin Atlantic’s crew training base in London, with Mark Nunn who coordinates all those logistics for Virgin Atlantic and we learned way more than we expected about food in the air. And it’s way, way more complicated than we ever imagined.

Altitude = Less Taste & Smell
There’s the matter of taste and smell. We lose 30 percent of our ability to taste and smell at the usual flying altitudes of around 8,000 feet. No wonder so much airline food taste bad. In the past, many airlines handled that by adding salt and serving a LOT of tomato sauce dishes.

Tasties from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, the upper class lounge at Heathrow airport in London. Here we have smoked salmon, marinated herring and salad along with champagne

Tasties from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, the upper class lounge at Heathrow airport in London. Here we have smoked salmon, marinated herring and salad along with champagne

“Our answer isn’t to over salt and spice the food,” Nunn said. “We want you to smell the food being warmed and then use fresh, creative spices instead of just salt.”

Some airlines totally precook food and then just warm it. Virgin partially cooks it (say, meats are cooked to medium rare) then finishes the cooking onboard. And like those fast food places that funnel aromas into the neighborhood, the airline make sure everyone knows something’s cooking.

Even the champagne, Lanson Black Label, is special for altitude. It has more citrus notes and enough character so that it doesn’t taste like generic sparkling whatever.

But it gets far more complicated.

“We have to take into account cultural difference,” Nunn said.

For instance, the airline cannot have any pork products aboard when landing in Dubai, whose Muslim culture forbids eating pork.

Flight attendant Lee Mallinson mans the upper class bar on a Virgin Atlantic trip from London to Los Angeles.

Flight attendant Lee Mallinson mans the upper class bar on a Virgin Atlantic trip from London to Los Angeles.

“The ground crew won’t touch the airplane to service it if we do.”

And different food is served depending on the destination… beef stew going to the U.S., very spiced curry dishes to India, bento to Japan. There are even seasonal differences. Overall, airlines like Virgin Atlantic serve heavier meals in winter.
Two things cross all cultural borders … filet steaks and, oddly, cheesecake. “We can’t put enough cheesecake on the aircraft,” Nunn added.

Meanwhile, there are those other little things.

Seats in upper class become beds or can be set up for two to share dinner.

Seats in upper class become beds or can be set up for two to share dinner.

“If we know in advance someone will be aboard with a nut allergy, we won’t load any nut products at all. We can’t take the risk,” Nunn said.

The airline also follows major culinary trends. GU desserts (cheesecakes, melted middles, mousses) are the latest “thing.” And the airline serves free range chicken (and eggs).

Tea or Spa Treatments?
Meanwhile, should you be lucky enough to fly what Virgin America calls “upper class,” there are themed afternoon teas. The Mad Hatter’s tea party, for instance, included toadstool and cup and saucer shaped cakes.

And there is Virgin’s Upper Class perks in London, which I’ve got to admit, make the

Dining in upper class features real tasty food and tables for two.

Dining in upper class features authentic tasty food and beds that convert to tables for two.

offerings across North America look and feel quite, well, tacky.

Start with the free 10-minute spa treatments … massage, manicure, conditioning shampoo with brief styling, segue to the showers and whirlpool (pack a bathing suit), continue on to the deli buffet (three kinds of smoked salmon, deli meats, breads, cereals), plus a full menu service and bar service (beware the spicy Bloody Mary which will blow the top of your head off).
Oh yes, there’s also a separate check-in counter, designed to look like a hotel lobby reservation desk.

But back to Nunn and his food responsibilities… In addition to Virgin Atlantic, Nunn is helping create food for Virgin Galactic. “We’re working with NASA so people get a space food experience.”

What does that mean? Nunn didn’t elaborate except to say, “Remember, those flights are really short.”

Upper class has it's perks. Travelers check in at a separate desk resembling a hotel lobby.

Upper class has its perks. Travelers check in at a separate desk resembling a hotel lobby.

Nunn hops nearly a dozen flights a year to personally check out the food. And yes, there are periodic surveys to see what passengers think.

Finally, there are the on board salt and pepper shakers. They’re shaped like little mice and on the bottom of the mouse feet is an inscription: “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic.”

People kept taking them, so the airline gave in and now, essentially, invites folks to help themselves.

“It’s a great bit of advertising,” Nunn said with a laugh. — Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski Editor, Powder Stagecoach.

Virgin Atlantic www.virgin-atlantic.com/us/en.html

Want to know more about Virgin Atlantic’s The Base? Check out these videos:

 

At Safety School at the Virgin Atlantic Training Base in London, a flight crew celebrates a successful trip down the slide, nearly two stories tall.

At Safety School at the Virgin Atlantic Training Base in London, a flight crew celebrates a successful trip down the slide, nearly two stories tall.

YouTube link to Training at The Base by Terry Gardner, Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5KCFCa82F4&feature=youtu.be

YouTube link to Training at The Base by Terry Gardner, Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTlYMVIojIo (This is mostly our experience with an “emergency” aboard the mock airplane at The Base. Plus us going down the slide.)

YouTube link to Training at the Base by Terry Gardner, Part 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3zUJitz_DM (An explanation about what goes on in the safety drill and why)



Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.