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From Famous Kitchens to the Skies: How Singapore Airlines Develops Their Menus

Where: 12 East 12th Street [map], New York, NY, United States, 10003
February 8, 2010 at 1:26 PM | by | ()

Porcini-crusted sea scallop with black trumpet mushrooms, yellowfoot chanterelles, leek, roman cauliflower and a frothy white wine reduction topper: that is what you are eating 39,000 feet up on a Singapore Airlines flight. And that's just the appetizer.

On Friday, we had the opportunity to stand back and observe as Chef Alfred Portale of New York City's Gotham Bar & Grill reviewed his newest menu for Singapore Airlines with the airline's chefs. This is their bi-annual tasting session, when the chefs trade ideas on in-flight presentation and preparation of some thirty meals that Portale has devised for the airline's US flights.

Curious to see exactly what the process is for creating an in-flight menu, especially one for the precise and exacting tastes of the passengers who fly in First and Business Class on Singapore, we took plenty notes and pictures as Portale and the Singapore chefs taste-tested an appetizer, an entree and two desserts from the upcoming summer menu. See the goodies after the jump!

Follow along in the gallery above as we look at the process of making an in-flight menu!

According to the Singapore chefs, the route they take to create this menu with the Gotham Bar & Grill is a series of integral stepping stones: Portale creates the recipes for the many dishes, then they are cooked so ingredients and yields can be determined, and they are prepared again and photographed for the references of the chefs and in-flight staff at the airline, until finally we reach this stage: the full cooking, plating, presentation and face-to-face discussion of each dish by Portale and the Singapore chefs.

We don't know how they did it, but Portale and crew coordinated the Singapore Airlines chef visit alongside a bustling New York Restaurant Week, and only a few hours before Portale had to fly down to Miami to prep for the Food & Wine Fest. And yet, nothing can be rushed when we're talking about in-flight cuisine; there are simply too many steps. In fact, as Portale told us, what courses may only take three steps in a traditional restaurant kitchen, can easily be stretched to some fifteen steps when you're talking about preparing it on an airplane—especially since there is no open flame, no knives, and no proper fridge or microwave.

So first, the sea scallop appetizer is prepared, plated and presented by Portale under the watch of Hermann Freidnack, Manager of In-Flight Services for Singapore Airlines, and his chefs. They discuss the appearance of the dish—appealing colors, textures, creativity—and speculate on possible substitutions before grabbing a fork and taste-testing the succulent serving.

This process is then repeated for the entree, a large poached lobster tail with its shell stuffed with crab meat in the style of a crab cake, served with roasted potatoes, a spinach custard, and a vinaigrette sauce including a hint of lemon and extra virgin olive oil. This is a prime example of what could become a dish for First Class passengers, owing to the large lobster served up.

Alfred said however that he does not make the decisions on what dishes go for what class of service; that is up to the airline. This dish, despite sounding terribly delicate to recreate up in the skies, is actually resilient since it can be served hot or cold and requires no eggs. Taste-testing and "mmmm-ing" commences, and another dish makes it into the roster for summer flights.

Finally, we head over to the pastry station where the Pastry Chef at the Gotham Bar & Grill, Deborah Racicot, presents two desserts to the Singapore Airlines chefs: a banana earl grey chocolate torte and white chocolate yuzu ice cream with carpaccio-ed fruit. The banana torte dish is begun with brushstrokes of chocolate upon the plate; it's for presentation of course, but also so as not to overpower the dish with chocolate. The cake itself is then placed—it being layers of banana sheet cake and mousse infused with Earl Grey tea—before the plate is finished off with a spoonful of caramelized banana ice cream.

Likewise, the yuzu ice cream is also carefully set into position atop a carpaccio of mango, kiwi and pineapple before being topped with caramelized macadamia nuts and a generous pour of passionfruit honey. Okay—we're getting seriously hungry again, and we can't believe that we're this drooly over airline food.

So sure, we got to spend some time sampling the best of what Singapore Airlines passengers have in store for them in a few months, but one thing that we found truly interesting—something most people may never guess—is that airline food requires a special butter. As we're sure you can guess, any regular butter-based sauce would not easily survive the steps from kitchen to plane galley, so Portale creates a compound butter. As with any compound butter, you'll find garlic and herbs and lemon in it to help it be preserved, but there's also a certain sort of bread bits in it, and the whole thing is made into sheets, pieces of which are simply placed onto fish and other dishes needing a butter topper, during the reheating.

The idea of compound butter is an ideal example of how cooking for the airlines requires chefs to begin fresh and remove themselves from a traditional kitchen and recognize the limitations of in-flight service. It's a difficult job, but it looks (and tastes) like Singapore Airlines does it well.

Related Stories:
· Gotham Bar and Grill [Official Site]
· Singapore Airlines news [Jaunted]

[All photos: Jaunted]

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