Catering in the Clouds

Gilles PommierDecisions, decisions… will you opt for the chicken or the fish? There might be a tasty beef fillet dish on offer. Or perhaps you’d prefer the vegetarian option?

While you ponder your choice of meal on today’s flight, spare a thought for the tireless work of the in-flight catering personnel that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that menus are varied, tasty and appeal to passengers on different routes. Jackson Biko peels back the foil lid on Kenya Airways’ high-flying dining, meets the airline’s top chef and discovers just what it takes to serve fresh, succulent tilapia at 36,000ft. Bon appétit!

Different tastes

Food03What eventually ends up on your plate for this flight is different from the Kenya Airways flight going to a different destination. This is because meals are designed to meet diverse passenger expectations and tastes. The menus are largely influenced by passenger profile. For example, Indian routes are mainly vegetarian, meals on flights to West African destinations include local cuisines like jollof rice, plantain and fish dishes, while European routes feature more pasta.
Members of Kenya Airway’s catering department monitor and review the meals on different routes using feedback from passengers and from the Voyage Report compiled by the Flight Purser, head of cabin crew. A vegetarian choice is supplied at 10 per cent on all routes except India, where it’s 40 per cent. If you fly one of the West African routes you will notice that the grammage of food is higher because passengers on that route are more likely to request additional helpings. In the spirit of going that extra mile to accommodate passengers Kenya Airways also imports a  special chilli from Nigeria that it knows is popular with Nigerians.
But according to Masoud, trends change all the time. “We have constantly to listen to clients’ demands, observe global trends and basically make sure that we are on top of our delivery.”
NAS Servair is supported by a culinary army of no less than 1200 staff who put together 18,000 meals for some 100 flights a day. The sourcing of raw materials is key to the success of this operation – some 90 per cent of ingredients are produced locally. In the course of just a single month the kitchens handle about 66,000 assorted yoghurts, 90,000 butter portions, seven different cuts of beef totalling 8 tonnes, 11 tonnes of chicken, 4 tonnes of lamb, 4 tonnes of fish, 15 tonnes of tomatoes, 8 tonnes of spinach and 2 tonnes of Kenyan beans.

Menu masters

Food02Long before the cabin crew wheel your food down the aisle, dozens of trucks from 84 suppliers carrying meats, vegetables, cheese, fish and other food items arrive at the gates of NAS headquarters at JKIA. Security is tight. All food coming in is checked, scanned and signed off.
Everyone who is authorised to access the main building has to surrender their phone, any metallic objects and wallet before they are fitted with headgear and a mouth mask. Hands have to be washed and sanitised before entry and at numerous points inside as you move from one section to the next. Of course, all this is after you have filled out a health questionnaire that, among other things, requires you to declare any sore throats or fever.
But first, long before the trucks arrive for off-loading, menus need to be developed. Product development involves various stages – research is key. Airline meal scheduling is established through measuring the duration of the flight, departure time and passenger profile (nationality, age etc.).
The next stage involves meal presentations for experts to sample various cuisines in order to devise the best menus for a specific route. On average 240 different lunches and dinners are sampled by the team over a period of three to five days.
The final stage is the tasting of the selected meals chosen for the in-flight menu. KQ crew, marketing people and frequent flyers are invited to participate.

The entire process – research, development and approval – can take three to six months.

Kitchen to KQ

Food04The food is prepared in a 24hr kitchen that has about 125 chefs, 35 of whom work in three shifts. Timothy Njoroge, the Executive Chef, oversees this grand culinary assault. Apart from the hot kitchen there is a cold kitchen where all the starters and sandwiches are made. To manage supply of the large volumes that airlines demand, NAS Servair makes good use of an innovative cooking technique known as sous vide (which literally means ‘under vacuum’). Food is steamed in airtight plastic bags for longer than normal cooking times, helping it to retain moisture and nutrients while enhancing deep natural flavours. “The advantage of this,” says Chef Njoroge, “is that we can cook food in large volumes and not lose its authentic taste.”

Meals are managed through an ordering system that provides passenger figures from 48 hours before flight departure. Data is monitored for any changes up to four hours prior to departure.

All catering materials are checked and equipment security sealed before being dispatched to the airport. Once verified at JKIA, they are cleared for loading. Once everything is safely on the plane, cabin crew take over and all that’s left is for you to decide whether it will be chicken or fish.


Meet the Chef


NAS Servair Executive Chef

Gilles PommierChef Gilles, 45, has 30 years’ experience cooking in France, 20 of which he spent in industrial catering. He has worked in Gabon, Senegal, Paris and Nairobi, where he has been based for the last year. He’s particularly involved in the research and development of food and cooking. In short, he’s constantly curious to know how to cook your food so that it tastes better.

Did you grow up around food or is it something you developed later in life?
My dad worked in the automobile industry. My mom worked in a kindergarten. My interest in cooking began when I was eight years old and volunteered to help a chef at some event. I’m happy that my 24-year-old son is also in the industry. He’s a butcher.

Creatively speaking, how does cooking in a restaurant differ from what you are doing now?
This is about volumes; otherwise it’s the same. Here we prepare about 18,000 meals a day and the challenge has been to make meals that are consistently good throughout and make them fast! The new technology – sous vide – which I brought to Africa and implemented and trained my staff in – is fascinating because it allows food to lose only 9 per cent of its moisture, thus retaining its smell, colour and taste.

What is your favourite part of the job?
Innovation and research. I like to do more to make our clients happy. Customer appreciation is my favourite part of this job.

What’s your own personal speciality?
I’m good with sauces. I’m also good with beef fillet and the science around cooking it for consistency.

What advice would you give fliers in terms of what to eat and drink?
Because your feeling of taste changes while you are up in the air, eat meat. It’s tastier on the tongue at that height. Don’t drink too much alcohol because your veins expand when you fly.

What are you fond of eating and drinking while flying?
I like the Kenyan menu of rice and beef casserole with spinach, washed down with red wine.

What do you do when you’re not cooking in the kitchen?
I like to gamble in the casino. I also love to go dancing.

What’s the best restaurant you have ever dined in and why?
Le Petit-Nice Paasedat in Marseille. I had the best grilled fish in sauce there.

Which route do you think has the most interesting and dynamic meals? 
Nairobi to Paris. I love the meals on this route because they mix the cuisine and culture of Africa and Europe.

What would you cook for a favourite guest?
The former chairman of this company used to like beef shoulder blade cooked for 72 hours in a Burgundy sauce and served with mashed sweet potatoes.

As you are French, please recommend a nice bottle of wine.
It would be Charmes-Chambertin. It’s really great with grilled meat.