Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s latest experiment – having already re-created Tudor feasts, Victorian banquets and perfected the hamburger – is to mentor a pop-up restaurant in London that serves airline meals. For two weeks in April, he was the consultant chef behind British Airways’ Olympics-themed “Flight BA2012” project. This temporary restaurant has been designed to look like the inside of an aircraft and, yes, airline food really is being served in a fuselage that’s going nowhere. Even with tickets costing GBP 50 per head, the pop-up restaurant in Shoreditch was fully booked for its short run within three hours of the online tickets going on sale.
This says much about the power of a celebrity chef’s name, but possibly even more about the capricious, novelty-seeking London restaurant scene. It’s a clever publicity stunt by British Airways, a way of promoting its status as the official Olympic airline. The menu – sketched out by Blumenthal, but fine-tuned by another well-regarded chef, Simon Hulstone – is inspired by airline menus since 1948, when the last Olympic Games were held in London. The same dishes will be available on first- and ‘club’-class BA cabins during the Olympic weeks, while a main dish from the menu will be served in the cheaper World Traveller Plus and World Traveller classes of seat; around three million passengers will experience a taste of the menu.
BA’s playful little pop-up seems easy though when compared to the pioneers of airline catering. With microwaves, sous-vide, vacuum-packing, refrigeration and a score of other technologies, it’s now nearly possible to re-create restaurant-standard food in the air (and a cinch to re-create airline-quality meals on the ground, especially at GBP 50 a meal ticket). Back in 1948, serving food in-flight was a different matter; the technical solutions back then were relatively primitive.
NOT SO LONG AGO
It may seem as though airline meals, as we know them now, have always been part of the flight experience, but their history is remarkably recent; they only became a fixture by the 1960s. There’s controversy over which European airline was the first to serve airline meals, though many attempts were made by various European airlines prior to the Second World War. Flying boats (a type of large seaplane), the airline passenger mass transit of choice between the Wars, offered flasks of coffee and sandwiches on longer flights as early as the 1920s. The Douglas DC-3 was the market leader for passenger transit in the 1930s and 1940s, and American Airways introduced the first experimental kitchen on a DC-3 in 1936. Passengers dining on these flights were provided with a cushion and tray for their laps and ate TV-dinner style.
It was during the early 1940s that US-based William L Maxson developed a system of frozen packaged meals – and the method of reheating them – called ‘Strato-Plates’ – for US soldiers flying overseas. These meals, manufactured in New York, contained three compartments – for meat, potato, and vegetables. Conventional defrosting ovens were too heavy for aircraft, so Maxson invented the ‘Whirlwind Oven’ that blew hot air over meals and could defrost six at a time. Towards the end of the War demand for Maxson’s meals started to tail off, so he approached Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), which started serving Maxson’s ‘Sky Plates’. Maxson’s frozen airline meals company closed soon after the inventor’s death in 1947, but other US companies – such as FrigiDinner – soon followed up on Maxson’s lead.
MIND YOUR MANNERS
Across the pond, the Europeans were concentrating their efforts on table etiquette rather than the technology of meal production. As Guillaume de Syon observes in his essay, ‘Is it really better to travel than to arrive?’, published in the book “Food for Thought” in 2008, BEA – a precursor of British Airways – was in competition with Air France on the London-Paris route in the post-War years. Air France ran a service they called ‘The Epicurean’, with on-board meals a big selling point. BEA was also no slouch at catering – it favoured a seating arrangement in which eight diners faced each other across two tables, restaurant style. Such experiments with diners facing each were eventually abandoned as they were a poor use of space in the relative confines of an aircraft; forward-facing seats were quickly reverted to. It was only after the War, with rapid changes in passenger plane design, that the airline meal evolved away from attempts to emulate the catering on railways and cruise ships.
Aircraft that could fly at higher altitudes or were better suited to longer passenger flights only became the norm after the Second World War. These presented a new problem: the cabins were initially not pressurised, and long periods of low or changing pressures made passengers (and on-board staff) feel ill. Airlines preferred to decant their long-haul passengers and feed them at transit stops. By the 1950s however, ever-higher altitudes meant that pressurisation of flights of up to 35,000 feet was necessary – not to ground pressure, but to pressure equivalent to around 8,000 feet, which was comfortable enough to dine in. This low, but comfortable pressure remains the norm to this day.
Because of concerns about too much competition between airlines driving down profits, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recommended the introduction of ‘economy class’, and eventually regulated what services passengers flying in economy class might be served. Airlines attempted to provide passengers with high quality meals – but not too high quality, or they might fall foul of the IATA guidelines.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
In the late 1950s, Trans World Airlines (TWA) filed a complaint against Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) after SAS boasted in its sales literature that, “On our planes you won’t find rubbery indigestibles wrapped in cellophane.” Pan Am also weighed into what became known as the “sandwich war”, complaining that four European airlines were competing unfairly by serving economy flight passengers sandwiches so elaborate that “they amounted to a fancy meal”. This clash culminated in a two-day IATA meeting in London in 1958 which ruled that a sandwich must be: “Cold, largely of bread or something simliar, unadorned, self-contained and not include such fillings as caviar, oysters or lobster”. The bar for economy class meals was therefore set low until the deregulation of airlines decades later.
By the early 1960s, the systems we recognise today began to emerge. Fold-down tray tables were introduced in the late 1950s and several years later the trays were standardised in size, based on the measurements used in the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8. Initially there had been virtually no branding on tableware – no logos on cups, plates or cutlery. Paper cups were the norm on transatlantic flights for a while. The design challenges were huge for designers employed to make the table arrangement attractive. The proportions were (and remain) akin to a dolls’ tea party, yet crockery must look appealing while being lightweight and durable; a type of tough plastic called Luran was eventually settled on. BOAC employed the services of Robin Day – better-known today for design classics such as polypropylene stacking chairs – to create its tableware. Air France employed designer Raymond Loewy – better-known for designs such as the Greyhoud bus and the Coca-Cola bottle – to design the tableware for Concorde.
SETTING THE SCENE
The attractive presentation of meals can only go so far in disguising an environment that is not ideally suited to a gastronomic experience. The lower pressure inside a high-altitude aircraft alters the body’s physiology; we’re all familiar with our feet and ankles swelling, for example. The sense of smell, and therefore of taste, is also adversely effected. The nostrils become drier, and general dehydration makes it harder for the taste buds to work as effectively as normal. The dry air of an aircraft exacerbates the dulling of the palate. In the 1970s BOAC tried to remedy the dryness of cabin air by installing humidifiers on its 747s, but this experiment was abandoned as the humidifiers were too heavy. A better alternative to stimulate the palate had to be found.
Guillaume de Syon observes there was breakthrough in menu planning in 1973 when UTA, a French airline, employed chef Raymond Oliver to rethink their menus. Oliver correctly deduced that dishes that were strongly flavoured, but could be reheated with little compromise of quality or flavour, were required. His solution was to offer a choice of three classic French bistro dishes – veal in cream sauce, coq au vin (chicken braised in red wine), or beef bourguignon (beef braised in red wine). This trio proved a huge success, all three dishes overcoming the inherent dryness of airline food and still packing flavour at 35,000 feet. Soon, other airlines adopted variants of the trio. Marian Burros reported in the New York Times in 1985 that one disenchanted flight attendant announced on a United Airlines flight that three main course choices were served, but ‘Please don’t be upset if your first choice is not available. They all taste the same anyway’. The flavours may have changed and improved dramatically since 1985 – Thai or Indian spices, say – but most airlines meals are still flesh-plus-sauce.
Back on the ground – specifically at ‘Flight BA2012’ in Shoreditch – the menu includes ‘potted braised beef with a potato and horseradish topping, served with hispi cabbage, baby carrots and roasted shallots with a rich jus’. This is not a million miles away from Raymond Oliver’s beef bourguignon, though Blumenthal and his team give credit to BOAC menus for their inspiration. A look at an actual BOAC menu from 1948, however, reveals the following: ‘cold roast chicken / ox tongue / corned silverside’ – that is, no hot dish of beef in a sauce.
Impressive though BA’s contribution to airline catering has been, it appears the French and the Americans were also on the Olympic podium in decades past – and many other airlines are also now front-runners in airline catering, all competing for a slice of your custom.
The ‘Flight BA2012’ pop-up bar and exhibition, meanwhile, is open from 6pm at the Nicholls and Clarke building, 3-10 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6PL. The restaurant is sold out.