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Austrian Airlines 'Chef on Board' and more
by Anne Spiselman
PHOTOS: FRED SWANSON
Stefan Schrempf, the 'chef on board' my Austrian Airlines flight from Chicago to Vienna, wasn't happy. Curry pumpkin soup boarded for the main meal in business class was too mild, and he had to add spices to perk it up. The grilled barramundi wasn't moist enough to start with, so by the time he heated it in the convection oven for service and plated it with olive-thyme puree and grilled vegetables, it had become a bit dry. Mushroom risotto accompaniment for the guinea fowl, chilled to 32°F (0°C) in the dispatch cooler and then reheated, was mushy. The filet of beef had been sliced too thin, thinner than on flights originating in Vienna, making it almost impossible to finish it to order properly for passengers who preferred their meat rare.
"I'm going to have to make a bad report to DO & CO," said Schrempf ruefully, referring to the Vienna-based gourmet entertainment company responsible for the carrier's catering. He also admitted that he tended to get mad when everything wasn't exactly as it should be.
If Austrian were like most airlines, the gastronomic gaffes that
distressed Schrempf wouldn't cause much concern. FAs typically handle service, and while multi-course meals with individually plated main courses remain the rule for international first class, in business, pre-plated mains and sides heated together are becoming more prevalent.
But several features set Austrian's award-winning business class
food and beverage programs apart. Ever since late in the Nineties, the airline has had a professional chef on board every long-haul flight. Although they have to pass flight safety training, they're not FAs but rather state-certified cooks with five years of training and experience. At least three of those years are with DO&CO, which has three divisions: airline catering, international events catering, and restaurants, bars, and hotels. According to Tino Wohlfahrt, assistant unit manager for DO&CO New York catering, the chefs, who currently number 50, come up through the European apprentice system and train in the restaurant division, so they know the company's menus and preparation style well.
Schrempf works for DO & CO even when he's not in the air, and he also gained some of his experience at the Grand Hotel in Vienna and other restaurants in Austria.
Complementing the chef on board are two beverage initiatives. The voluntary sommelier program, started in 1998 and open to all FAs, includes three days of training provided by the Austrian Wine Academy. Participants learn about everything from grape varieties to how to judge quality and must pass an exam to earn their 'degree'. Austrian spokesman Michael Braun says that 400 of the 1,800 FAs have passed so far and many of them opt to continue their education by taking internal courses, such as 'Austrian Wine Culture' and 'Dinner Coaching'. He says there's at least one sommelier on almost every flight to explain the wine list, which changes every two months and focuses on Austrian wines. The international lineup usually is three Austrian whites and three reds, one of which is international (for example, a Chilean merlot or cabernet), as well as a Champagne, a sparkler, and an Austrian dessert wine, such as Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese 2005.
To cap the main meal on a high note and give passengers a taste of Viennese coffee house culture, Austrian began its coffee program in 2006. Ten coffees, prepared to order and served the traditional way on silver trays with a piece of chocolate, include the classic mélange (black coffee, hot milk, foamed milk), the Maria Theresia (coffee with orange liqueur), the fiaker (coffee in a glass with Cognac and whipped cream), and Wiener eiskaffee (a double espresso in a tall glass with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream).
Making the coffees is one of the jobs of the chef on board. The others are dictated by the menus, which are created at DO & CO's Vienna headquarters and change quarterly, and galley limitations, among them the cramped working area, lack of a real stove (convection oven, only), and a prohibition against kitchen knives. Wohlfahrt says the menus are identical for all trans-Atlantic flights. They're also tested—and chefs are trained—in the Vienna flight kitchen's mockup of an airline galley. Although it isn't pressurized, it provides a good idea of how things will work onboard. He adds that menu presentations are sometimes made at DO & CO's slightly smaller New York operation.
On flights from US gateways—New York (JFK), Washington, DC (IAD), and Chicago (ORD)—the six-course main meal begins with an amuse-bouche followed by a choice of two plated appetizers, then soup, then a choice of three mains, a trolley with cheeses and desserts, and finally, your choice of the coffees. On flights from Vienna to the US, which have more time for dinner service, the appetizer is a selection from half-a-dozen antipasti on a trolley, arranged on a plate as you choose them. The second service is breakfast on flights originating in the US and a light lunch—with a pick of a warm pasta or shrimp salad, for example—from Austria to the US.
Besides heating and plating main courses with their garnishes,
Schrempf supervised the ladling of the curry pumpkin soup over the crispy pumpkin in each bowl, the presentation of desserts, and myriad other details. For breakfast, the omelette with cottage cheese merely was heated, but he had to cook the sunnyside-up eggs to order, no easy task in a convection oven.
On my return flight from Vienna to Chicago several days later, Chef Christopher Kraus served passengers on one side of the cabin and purser Alexander Krebs was in charge of the other. They assembled picture-pretty antipasto plates from the likes of Scottish smoked salmon, DO & CO's own goose liver pate, Styrian-style duck breast, and Austrian fresh sheep cheese, as well as pouring traditional wine soup over dainty smoked trout crepes. Kraus plated the mains—grilled seabream with Mediterranean vegetables and rosemary potatoes, chicken breast 'Kiev' with pommes alumettes and princess beans, beef filet with soy tomato vegetables and wasabi potato puree—and, unlike Schrempf, he had no complaints about the quality of the food boarded.
Wohlfahrt says that Schrempf's difficulties illustrate one of the biggest challenges. "The food has to be cooked just the right amount—about 90 percent—in the flight kitchen, so that it's perfect when it's finished on board," he explains, noting that DO & CO prepares Austrian's food in its own flight kitchen in New York, the company's only North American outpost, but uses Flying Food Group in Chicago and LSG SkyChefs in Washington, DC. "The chef on board can always tell the difference," he says. "It's not only that DO & CO relies on the highest quality ingredients and the expertise of an in-house chef, every chef on board has been in our catering units, so the prep cooks know the chefs who'll be completing the job, which isn't the case at most caterers."
Estimating that Austrian Airlines spends $110 to $130 on food service (not counting wine) for each business class passenger, Wohlfahrt maintains that the biggest reward is positive customer feedback. "That's our bread and butter," he declares, adding that positive "word of mouth" has also helped DO & CO secure several other airline catering clients.
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