“Chicken or beef?”
My favourite question by cabin crew every time they walk past my seat on an airplane, because it will only mean one thing – meal time! Airplane food has never had a good reputation among passengers and I have to admit, I’ve had some underwhelming inedible meals on planes in my life. But is that the fault of airlines or because of air pressure that can numb 30% of our taste buds where only strong flavours can stimulate our in-flight palates? I am sure one thing you all will agree with me is that preparing airplane meals is not a simple task, to make food taste good is only a small part of the operation. There is a real science to food at altitude and even Heston Blumenthal had a good crack at it.
If you’ve always wondered how the airline meals are prepared from the kitchen to being served on an airplane 35,000ft high in the air, then please have your seat up and tray down, as I will take you on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Emirates Catering Centre in Dubai.
The Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) in Dubai no doubt is the biggest catering facility in the world, it is now pushing to produce 150,000-160,000 meals a day! To make such large amount of food needs an army to move the mountain; EKFC employs over 8,000 staffs in total, with around 1,600 staffs onsite at any time working continuously in the facility to cater 360 flights daily.
The facility never shut its door, employees coming in and out 24/7, hence the security is tight as ever. We passed through two security checkpoints before entering the compound and into the building. Here we signed ourselves in at the security desk, handed our forms in to declare we are infectious and communicable diseases free, surrendered our passports in return of visitor tags before walking through the security X-ray scan.
Hygiene is just as important here at EKFC; we all had to put on white lab coats and hair nets, and I was also given a “beard net” to cover up before entering the facility!
All deliveries are passed through X-ray machines operated by Dubai Police before releasing into the de-boxing area. All stocks are then stored and stacked on their own pallets that can be sanitised easily in the supply storage area. Here you will find the airline supplies like cutlery, silverware, trays, dishes and other non-perishable stock.
One thing you may find interesting is that there is no food storage here at EKFC. All fresh produce comes in pre-processed and straight to the kitchen. So it is very important for the suppliers to deliver fresh produce at certain time of the day, so they can use it straight away to prepare the next meals.
The only storage they have is where they keep canned or bottled food. It is their priority to avoid any form of contamination, they even have a designated room where any products in cans, glass jars or bottles must be opened and transferred to plastic containers before use in the kitchen.
Little did you know that one of the most important section in the facility is the post-flight sorting section where dirty trolleys come in from different flights by the bucket loads daily! All trolleys are transported through an automated monorail system into the building then be sorted manually. All food waste is sucked through a 200 metres pipe system into a compacter. All plastic cockery and silver cutlery are then loaded on the high pressure dish washers.
Cleaned cockery and trays are then sorted into barcoded crates, which will be transported via a conveyer system to different sections in the facility.
The Kitchen area is where the fun begins. It is divided into three sections – Cold Kitchen, Hot Kitchen and the Pastry section. Cold Kitchen is where they prep most of the cold appetisers like entrees and cheeseboards for Business and First Class, and also sandwiches.
It doesn’t matter whether they are making 10 or 1,000 sandwiches, consistency is essential. A “Gold Standard” reference is on display at each section to ensure all food are prepared and looked the same. It was quite amazing to see how fast and efficient the staffs were assembling the ham sandwiches; forget about the butter knife, they dipped the gloved hand into butter and then a quick swipe inside the bedroll before stuffing it with lettuce and ham slices. I also noticed the precision of all ham slices were folded in half and faced in in the bread roll.
We’re told that they do rotate the staffs into different section with different job regularly to avoid RSI; you just don’t want to be that person who puts lining papers on the trays. Paper cuts!
An impressive spread of cheese boards are being prepared, grapes are carefully selected and placed on the boards before packing up into trolleys.
You get what you pay for, obviously the meals for Business and First Class are a lot fancier than the Economy Class meals on silver foil trays. Since they don’t have to prepare as many Business and First Class meals like they have to for the Economy, they actually do take their time to plate up the dishes with precise attention to detail.
We were told that they have to keep a secret every time they hire a new sushi chef from Japan to design the Japanese menu for their Japan flight route because they have already lost many of their skilful Japanese chefs to the high end restaurants in Dubai. They snatched them up fast by offering them twice as much pay.
The Pastry Kitchen is a sweet heaven filled with Arabic pastries, cakes and baked goods, all made in-house so they have a better quality control over them.
There are over 120 menus that changes monthly to cater all different flight routes. All the dishes for that month are plastered on the wall outside the hot kitchen as reference. It show how the dishes are plated and also the quantity of each component in percentage to put on that dish.
We had just missed the busiest time of the day in the hot kitchen as most of the cooking would had been done earlier ready for the morning flights. The chefs were now a lot more relaxed when we entered; most chefs already started cleaning up, only one chef was still stirring a giant stew in the commercial braising pan. All hot foods must be cooked to a minimum required temperature as shown on charts hanging from the ceiling all over the kitchen.
All cooked food will be put on large trays and stacked inside trolleys, then blast chilled immediately to 2-3C in the cool rooms. For Economy Class, the food are split into individual portions and place inside the foil trays as they moving along slowly on the conveyor belt.
Assembling the Business and First Class meals are a lot more different, only one employee is made responsible for the meals on a single flight. That way, any issues on the meals on that certain flight can be trace back to who, when and how the problem occurred. No pressure or anything?
The assembling section for Economy Class was a lot more hectic. It was noisy and everyone worked in fast pace, it was all about team work. As the meal trays moving along the conveyor belts, each person would add two items onto the trays until they reached the end, the last two staffs would stack them inside the trolleys. A group of ladies at the cutlery polishing station were in hysteric as soon as they saw us coming. They seem to enjoy themselves despite their task of polishing cutlery then rolling them into napkin seems painstakingly mundane.
The plastic cutlery packet for Economy Class has its own assembly line too; one will put toothpicks into slots on the conveyor belt, followed by salt and pepper sachets, then plastic cutlery and so on, before everything was sealed in plastic wrap.
The whole EKFC facility is like a well oiled machine, everything has to be ready according to time scheduled, else it can be catastrophe. You simply do not want to be in the loading zone before dawn as it would be their peak hours with 40% of the Emirates flights leaving between 6am – 10am; all trolleys with meals are ready to be loaded onto trucks then transported to the aircrafts 1-2 hours before the scheduled departures.
Business Class on Emirates A380
It was a privilege to be upgraded to Business Class on our return flight from Dubai to Sydney as part of our media trip. Thank you Emirates! However, I can tell you now, most airlines are usually very strict on upgrade and normally would never upgrade any passenger from Economy to Business Class unless one has prior arrangement with the authority (in our case) or unpredictable circumstances like one with medical condition that needs special attention. So I was like a (big) kid in the candy store when I got bumped up to the Business Class on the upper deck of a A380.
Let’s trace back to last December, I actually flew Economy Class on the Emirates A330 from Jordan to Dubai and I was already super impressed with the whole experience. The mood lighting and starry sky ceiling panel give you the sense of sleeping under the stars is a nice touch; but USB port and a power point behind the seat are the icing on the cake! I seriously think all airlines should have USB ports on all seats from now on, can you imagine all the selfies taken on the airplane and uploaded to Instagram in real time? Hello, free publicity for airline!
I’d be more than happy to fly Economy with Emirates again. But who would say no to Business, right?
Selfie in Business Class for the first timer, who wouldn’t?
But please, don’t get snarky on those who can afford to fly in Business or First Class, because it does have its privileges, especially on a long haul flight like from Dubai to Sydney, 14 hours in total. I bet you wouldn’t say no to a comfy flat bed either.
There are a few ways to get yourself one of the 76 flat-bed seats in Business Class on the Emirates A380:
1. Pay the full price (which is usually very unlikely for many of us with average income)
2. Business trip, get the company to pay for it because is tax deductable.
3. Start collecting Skywards mile points.
Personally, I think collecting Skywards mile points is the way to go. “But, it’s all too hard and takes forever to collect enough points!” Oh, I hear you girlfriend… But it isn’t actually.
Here is an example:
* Return flight Dubai – Sydney on Economy = earn 13,000 Skyward miles
* One-way flight Dubai – London to upgrade from Economy to Business = require 50,000 Skyward miles
* You only need to take 4 return flights (Dubai – Sydney) to accumulate enough Skyward miles to be upgraded to Business Class for a one-way (yes, you only need the experience) flight from Dubai to London. Depending on how often you travel, I reckon you’d be able to earn enough points for the upgrade within 2-3 years.
* The secret is – stick to one airline (or partnered airlines) every time you fly and collect points for that particular airline only.
No doubt the service from the cabin crew in Business Class was impeccable. There were 27 cabin crew members onboard who can speak a total of 40 languages. Go ahead if you want to test your language skills. Fresh hot towels were handed to passengers to freshen up from the Middle East’s heat; followed by a glass of champagne as we all settling in into our own cocoons.
Actually, the seat was hardly a cocoon but more like a spacious throne that extends to a full 2-metre long (78 inches) flat bed. I am 6’2″ (186cm) and still able to fit in comfortably with some extra leg room, the 14-hour flight was only a dream away. But it was difficult to convince myself to go to sleep when I was surrounded with gadgets!
Each seat has its own “mini” bar fully stocked with fancy Voss still water, Pierre sparkling, juices and soft drink. Each passenger was also given a Bvlgari amenities kit according to gender, my “man bag” came with the usual toiletries plus Bvlgari products.
Like in the Economy Class, each seat was also equipped with USB ports and a universal power point so that I could charge up my iPhone while staying connected using the OnAir WiFi, at US$7.50 for 5Mb of data. The ICE entertainment system will keep passengers entertained throughout the flight with over 1000 items of movies, TV channels, radio and games to choose from. You can also choose to watch movies on the huge screen in front of you, or by using the portable iPad.
The new Hobbit movie was shit by the way.
Finally we got to sample the food after learning all about the airline meals from the private tour of the Emirates Flight Catering Centre in Dubai. Business Class meals are served separately in three courses of entree, main and dessert with many side dishes.
There was two options to choose from for entree and I went for seared herb marinated salmon instead of the traditional Arabic mezze. It was a refreshing entree with fresh salmon, semi sun-dried tomato and Waldorf salad. Despite the menu written “choose from our range of freshly baked rolls and breads” from the Bread Basket, we were actually given an assortment of sesame, wholemeal and rye mini buns clumped together. The buns were soft and warm; but I had to refrain myself from accepting another round of the bread rolls when offered because there were more food to come.
Let’s face it, we are not in a fine dining restaurant, you could pretty much expect any steak on an airline meal menu will be served well done; at least they used the best cut to assure the meat is as tender as possible. My hunk of prime beef was served with wild mushroom sauce, roasted potatoes and sautéed vegetables.
For dessert, there was no better pairing than chocolate and port. It was a block of chocolate parfait garnished with white chocolate tuille and served with balsamic cherry jus; washed down with a glass of sweet 2001 Cruv LBV Port.
Oh look who I was sitting next to? It’s Sir Tony Robinson who had already changed into his pyjamas and ready for bed after meal.
But the night (or day, totally lost sense of time and day by then) was still young, why sleep when we could hang out at the lounge bar?
Right at the back on the upper deck was the Business Class Onboard Lounge where passengers were welcomed to mingle at the curved leather lounges, nibble on hors d’oeuvres and sip on cocktails concocted to order from the horseshoe bar. Free-flowing alcohol, bottomless nibbles and a polaroid camera could really turn this part of the aircraft into a party zone. Everyone took turns to pose behind the bar and had their photos taken as souvenir.
I stopped at three G&Ts; low air pressure, alcohol and comfy flat bed, I only had one thing in mind – “Please don’t wake me up for the next few hours.”
Here is the video to sum up the whole experience, from ground to air. Enjoy!
[A Table For Two visited Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism. Flights and private tour of Emirates Flight Catering Centre courtesy of Emirates.]