“Can you get me a place at your New York restaurant, next week?” the Daily Mail reporter asks, half in jest, as we stand huddled, gawking at the elegant octopus carpaccio chef Nobu Matsuhisa is putting together. It is a privilege to watch a chef at work. This time more so since this is undoubtedly one of the brightest stars on the culinary firmament.
Matsuhisa started off as a sushi chef in Japan before moving to Peru, where he picked up a flair for combining South American ingredients with Japanese. He then opened a restaurant in Alaska. It failed. But the chef was meant for bigger things and as he moved to California, things started falling into place. Matsuhisa became a household name with the Hollywood crowd taking to him like never before (he opened a restaurant in partnership with Robert de Niro and starred in some films too) but stardom never took the sheen off his cooking skills.
Anyone who has been to a Nobu restaurant in any corner of the world (unfortunately, India will have to wait just a little longer though the chef has been recceing Delhi and Mumbai routinely) will vouch for his black cod miso, undoubtedly the most famous contemporary Japanese dish ever created. And now, as Matsuhisa joked with the Daily Mail guy, “all you need to do to sample (it) is buy a plane ticket!”
You would not necessarily equate airline food with a gourmet meal of at least one Michelin star standard. But with Nobu and three other acclaimed chefs (our own Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian to helm a Michelin star restaurant; chef Ramzi Choueiri, Lebanese master chef, and Tom Aikens, the young British chef famous for his work with French and British food) coming together to form a formidable culinary team for Qatar Airways, the first time ever that such an endeavour at this level has been made, frequent fliers may be in for a surprise.
But first, let’s examine why airline meals usually taste so bad? Apart from introducing newer fleets of Dreamliners, flat beds, flat TVs, bars and butlers in order to pamper their customers (at least first and business class ones), airlines are now putting serious thought into this question. Food after all plays such an important role in any flying experience. It is not merely about nourishment. It is entertainment when you have precious little to do to while away the hours. And one research findings is that the lack of moisture when we are flying in a highly pressurised tube at 30,000 feet is to blame for the cardboard we usually taste in air. Our mouths dry out and we lose, some estimates say, up to 30% of our ability to taste.
That said there are other obvious challenges to creating a five-star meal in air. A lot of stuff may need to be precooked, the food has to be simple enough for airline staff to put together, and fresh ingredients is obviously a challenge. But ways are now being found to go around all these.
The young but twice-awarded Qatar Airways that self-confessedly wants to be a “five-star” airline, says it has invested in new technology such as induction ovens that allow food to be cooked (till almost 80%) on board. Rice, for instance, can be completely cooked in the craft, doing away with the problem of it drying up. And crew has been trained to put together the dishes like they would in a fancy restaurant. The plating has to be kept simpler than at your favourite Michelin star restaurant, still it is impressive if the galley staff manages to put all the wasabi dots prettily enough.
Nobu says his restaurant in London has been training the airline staff in not just plating but understanding the philosophy of his food—which is pretty simple, if you come to think of it. The chef cooks with his heart and at the end of the day, his efforts revolve around creating surprising flavours and textures that will put a smile on his customers’ faces. In an aircraft, to achieve this is easier said than done. Hence the staff training, even though all sauces, powders and even pre-cut fish (cutting is after all an art in itself in Japanese food) is provided by Nobu’s restaurants.
Our own Vineet Bhatia, who has also created his repertoire for the airline, says the trick is to heighten aromatic spices so the food remains flavourful even at that altitude. You can make up your own mind on how much these chefs have succeeded when you fly out next. We can only hope that all this attention will become a trendsetter and airline dining experiences will seriously rev up.
The writer is a food critic