How does an airline meal go from the mind of a consultant chef like Qantas' Neil Perry of Rockpool to your business class tray table on an Airbus A380 or Boeing 747?
Australian Business Traveller sat down with Qantas' very enthusiastic Rockpool consultant Terry Higgins to delve into exactly how a business class meal is created, tested and produced for your flight.
Higgins is one of five Rockpool consultants working with the airline, spending her time between Rockpool, Qantas' Epicurean Centre (just north of Sydney Airport) and the various airports on the Red Roo's network.
"Four of us write the menu for lounges, domestic business class, international business and first class," Higgins explains. "I work with cabin crew training and design new services. We stretch across a lot of the business, focussing on our business and first class offering."
Neil Perry and the Rockpool team have been working with Qantas for sixteen years, starting off with first and international business class, before spreading to lounges and domestic business class.
Creating a new dish: from Rockpool to the plane
"When we're looking at doing a new season of menus, Roger Barstow, who designs our menus, gets together with Neil and often the head chefs in our restaurants. They'll start getting inspiration and having conversations about where they've travelled."
"Roger will spend a good week or so seriously researching what he wants to put on, what's fashionable, what's coming up, and what's regionally good -- what we know that an airport's strengths are."
Higgins explains how Qantas' close working relationship with "outstation" caterers -- the ones in, say, Hong Kong or London rather than at home in Sydney -- gives the food team flexibility.
"It could be seasonal produce in June for instance, when we know the strawberries will be beautiful out of London. We will make sure that, during the season, we put strawberries on."
Higgins goes on to name the classic American Reuben sandwich on flights from the US, a pork pie out of London or a stir fry noodle dish from Hong Kong as the starting points for local inspiration, before explaining that the local caterers will often make suggestions about menus that become firm favourites.
"We play to airports' strengths and local chefs' strengths too. Neil knows chefs in the US or London, say, who come across an ingredient or a supplier that we then bring onto Qantas in those regional ports."
Testing, testing, testing
"Once Roger has done all that planning, he starts going into recipe mode, and then we start recipe testing. We test all the recipes, and that's done at Rockpool, upstairs. After that, Neil tries all the dishes and he gets advice from the other head chefs who are trying all the dishes. Often we will have someone from the Qantas catering centre as well."
"They all really work together to make sure that the dish is deliverable, because there's no point in doing a great dish that you can't then put in an oven and reheat. You've got to have something that can be delivered on board an aircraft."
"Then the dishes go out into Qantas when we send them to the catering centres. They then cook that dish back to us: they have our recipe and our specifications, and they're required to cook it, so we know that they really have it right."
"Often then we'll do a little bit of tweaking -- it could be flavour profiles, it could be presentation -- and we'll get to a place where we've all signed off: this dish is ready to fly."
Then it's your turn
"Once it goes on board the aircraft, the crew have had training and have documents on board to help them cook it."
"The full circle happens then: we deliver it to the customer, and the crew give us feedback on what customers like. The catering centre has input too -- everyone gets really into the feedback, particularly at the very beginning of a menu change."
Higgins and the team look at "customers' likes, dislikes, whether it works, whether it translates well on board -- we always want to make sure that we're giving customers what they want. But sometimes we're aspiring to give them things that they don't even know that they want."
Do try the snapper...
Higgins explains that Qantas' snapper in coconut milk and garam masala surprises her in its popularity among a wide base of the airline's customers.
"I remember last year flying up to Singapore on the A380. 72 customers, predominantly business men, I have to say, on that particular flight, and watching more than thirty percent of them sitting there eating fish in the sky, eating garam masala."
"That is so fantastic, and it really gives me goosebumps thinking that it's given customers the confidence to know that they can eat beautiful fish on board an aircraft, and push their tastebuds to eat things that they would not normally have eaten."
(Higgins was happy to provide the recipe for the popular snapper dish for Australian Business Traveller readers to try their hand at in their home kitchens -- or on the road -- let us know how it goes!)
Once your thoughts on Qantas' business class meals (and the feedback from caterers and crew) have been collated and studied, the airline's team isn't afraid to bring back popular favourites from previous menus.
"We've put some of our most successful dishes back on again, because customers want them. They really enjoy dishes. We did a fifteen-year anniversary menu last year and we put on favourites. Some of them have been flying for over ten years."
"Customers love them so much," Higgins says, and points to "the steak sandwich in first, which used to be on one route only, but we had to put it on every single route in first class."
What's the best way for business travellers to tell Qantas and Rockpool what they think about the food onboard?
"Cabin crew are the best conduit," Higgins says. "They are always coming back, sending me emails. A way of knowing how good things are is that we get recipe requests from the cabin crew [as well as passengers]. We happily send out recipes to customers and to cabin crew who enjoy meals as well."