Executive Traveller exclusive
Late morning at Sydney’s Qantas International First Lounge sees a brief window of calm between waves of peak-hour flights.
The departure of QF11 to Los Angeles almost empties the lounge, leaving only passengers bound for Singapore and Manila to enjoy lunch from the seasonal spring menu as dishes are bustled out from the kitchen to the dining room.
And in that same kitchen, in the closing weeks of November, the first class lounge’s summer menu, due to launch in early December, is taking shape.
Chef Alex Woolley, a nine-year veteran of the Neil Perry Consulting team, stands over a wide metal table, alongside Sydney First Lounge chefs Esha and Martin and their Melbourne counterpart Vee.
The team is working its way through a dozen recipes developed and tested in the Qantas kitchens, including several Korean dishes to celebrate the December 11 start of Qantas flights from Sydney to Seoul, which will join the long-standing favourites as part of the menu’s refresh.
“We have our signature dishes which don't need to change, then for the other half of the menu we go to what’s seasonal,” Woolley says, although there are “hooks” such as the start of new routes.
Some 120 new recipes are developed each year for the airline’s first class lounges, including several inspired by the suggestions of guests to the lounge staff.
But one of the summer recipes, for Korean-style fried chicken wings, is challenging the assembled chefs.
The crust seems too heavy and thick, lacking in ‘crunch’, while the sauce is too spicy.
Also getting hands-on in the kitchen is Jamie Cho, who serves as Perry’s food, beverage and service consultant for Qantas, in addition to designing the airline’s service experience for lounges and inflight.
Drawing on her extensive experience at Perry’s restaurant empire, including general manager of Spice Temple, along with her South Korean heritage, Cho suggests they reconsider the mix of flour used for the batter and the temperature for the second frying (Korean fried chicken is fried twice), along with adding sugar to soften the bright red sauce.
Woolley is also concerned about the impact of the second frying stage on the kitchen, especially during the busy lunchtime and afternoon period, as the fryers are already heavily committed to the lounge’s popular salt and pepper calamari.
“The salt and pepper calamari is a signature dish: whenever people ask for one, they need to get one,” Woolley explains to Executive Traveller, “so it kind of gets its own fryer and its own time… we can’t have another dish putting the service of that in jeopardy.”
It’s one of many ‘behind the scenes’ insights of the inner workings of these flagship Qantas lounges.
The kitchens at the Sydney and Melbourne first class lounges serve around 1200 diners on a busy summer day, with several dishes per person.
And to feed those frequent flyers, a house rule is that no dish on the menu should take longer than eight minutes to prepare – which is why a deep fryer clash between the calamari and Korean fried chicken simply can’t happen.
The chicken wings are marked down for a second try, the workbench is cleared and out come the ingredients for bibimbap, another Korean dish “brainstormed” between Woolley and Cho.
While bibimbap is often considered a beef-based staple, Cho says this vegetarian take is not only a more traditional South Korean dish but “a perfect fit” for the breakfast menu “because we are focusing on a light, healthy offering, particularly in the morning.”
The brown rice is mixed with mushroom, bean sprouts, sautéed spinach, carrots and zucchini, all topped with a soft-yolk fried egg.
But it seems a little flat – “it needs just enough spice without overpowering the flavour,” considers Cho – so she carefully measures and mixes in another five grams of the fermented gochujang red chilli paste.
This hits the spot with a tingle on the tongue, and the recipe is adjusted accordingly.
Another serving of the bibimbap is prepared and then more carefully assembled – presentation is important at the Qantas First lounges, as at any fine dining restaurant – as smartphones come out to snap quick photos for reference.
Closer to the menu’s launch, more photos will be taken to guide staff in how to plate this and all other dishes before they leave the kitchen and make their way to the hungry traveller.
(Insider tip: note how the inky ‘smudge’ on the David Caon-designed plates always faces to the diner’s right.)
Up next is a fresh summer twist to the delicately-flavoured Humpty Doo Barramundi, another mainstay on the First Lounge menu.
The grilled barramundi is partnered with a Sicilian-style agrodolce garnish which Woolley nominates as one of his favourites: “something sweet, something salty, something a little bit sour.”
The recipe calls for lemon, capers, pine nuts, currants and olives.“It’s a classic flavour combination that always works and is beautiful with fish,” Woolley shares.
“We serve it with spinach which has some soft butter put through it, and we add some chilli because we like that little bit of a pickup.”
Everyone around the table votes this as a first-try winner so it’s properly plated, photographed and put aside in readiness for the next candidate.
Continuing Qantas’ embrace of plant-based dining, the first class lounge’s summer 2022 menu introduces grilled king brown mushrooms with zucchini, corn and a tarragon dressing.
“It’s quite a simple dish but a really tasty entrée, all the flavours work really well together,” Woolley reflects.
But this simple plate comes with a small complication: how best to arrange that handful of components.
“Sometimes getting it onto the plate so that it looks as beautiful as it tastes, and doesn't look messy, takes a little bit of fiddling around.”
This is another invisible stage in each dish’s development; everyone pitches in, an optimal presentation quickly comes together and more photos are snapped.
One dish requiring minimal tweaking is the thick Dan Dan noodles with spicy pork mince, cashews and Chinese broccoli, which previously featured at the now-closed Qantas Hong Kong Lounge.
“We’ve cooked this one a few times in trying to get the balance of the sauce just right,” Woolley says, adding toasted Szechuan pepper and scribbling notes on his recipe sheet as the chefs add and taste different blends of chilli oil.
“It’s about dialling in the balance of the hot and the numbing and the salty, but we want a real chilli kick with this.”
The menu development session closes, as all good meals should, with dessert.
The lounge’s ‘deconstructed pavlova in a glass’ will showcase a variety of fruits throughout summer, based on “what’s best during the season,” Woolley says.
“Mangoes are amazing right now, but when we get a couple weeks of great figs we’ll switch to figs and raspberries.”
Beyond the perennially popular pav, the summer menu’s new brown sugar sponge with strawberry sorbet and vanilla cream will be one to watch for.
"I just love strawberries in summer,” Woolley enthuses as deftly slices them into tiny red chunks and slivers, “and strawberry sorbet is just one of the best things ever.”
The First Lounge chefs weigh in on how to present the dessert as Woolley breaks apart the brown sugar sponge cakes, pairing combinations of two and three pieces with different arrangements of strawberries, sorbet and cream.
While each variation is a treat for the tastebuds, the finely-diced strawberries aren’t providing a sufficiently firm base for the sponge cake or the generous scoop of sorbet – the dessert is at risk of literally coming apart as it’s trotted out to the traveller.
“Sydney is a long lounge, and these plates can have a long way to go from the kitchen,” Woolley explains, “so you can't have a precarious melting thing on top of something else and when it arrives at the table it's all fallen over...(so) you want to build the dish so that it arrives looking as lovely as it did in the kitchen.”
Woolley stirs some sieved icing sugar into a bowl of strawberries to make them cling together and provide a more solid framework for the rest of the ingredients.
“This is something we can do well ahead of time, so the sugar and the strawberry juices can really set together,” he suggests to the team.
And as for those Korean-style fried chicken wings: Sydney First Lounge chefs Esha and Martin have whipped up a variation of batter plus a slightly sweeter version of the sauce using honey to complement the spices.
Two frying sessions later, as everyone tastes the wings, sounds of appreciation indicate their approval. “I think we’re 99% ready to go,” smiles Jamie Cho.
The 2022 summer menu lands at the Qantas First Lounge Sydney on Tuesday December 6 and at the Qantas First Lounge Melbourne on Thursday December 8, followed by similar seasonal menu refreshes at the Los Angeles and Singapore First Lounges.