MIAMI — I would rather sit through nine solid days of a junior Karate tournament than voluntarily wade through rush-hour airport traffic on a messy Thursday afternoon, but I happened to be a guest of Qatar Airways who were wining and dining a few guests on-board a Boeing 777 parked near JFK’s Terminal 8.
Having swallowed my fair share of bumpy inflight meals at a variety of altitudes, I can confidently declare that the airlines have pretty much thrown everything they can at the challenge of pre-made, flash-frozen and reheated food that gets plated and served in an artificially dry environment, where passengers’ senses of smell and taste are quickly replaced by escalating boredom. Some airlines have requisitioned the talents of celebrity chefs and master sommeliers to improve their menus. Others have permitted passengers to pre-select their meals a week prior to departure. Some have introduced themed dishes or on-demand food service via the in-seat touch-screen. But regardless of whether the menu was signed by Daniel Boulud or Joel Rubichon, when you find yourself dining while strapped to a chair, the real battle between you and what’s on the end of your fork is at the hands of a caterer 30,000 feet below you.
Qatar is very proud to have commissioned master chefs Nobu Matsuhisa and Vineet Bhatia, who put together some of their inflight meals a couple of times a year. Does this mean you can always expect Michelin star-worthy sushi and Indian food on board? The short answer according to the airline’s head of Food & Beverage, Colin Binmore, is “not exactly”. The long answer involves customer profiles and cultural preferences based on global routes and regions, and the availability of fresh ingredients from foreign airport caterers. So let’s crack that egg open. Once the celebrity chef has had his menu preparations thoroughly photographed, documented, sniffed and scratched, the caterers are painstakingly trained with regular check-ins to make sure that no corners are cut, and that the seasonal fruits are in fact in season and chewable, or that there is consistency with vinegar and chili use (apparently two very popular travails), and that the taste to the passenger closely matches the chef’s original intent.
Quality control and consistency keep Binmore’s team up all night all over the world, given how broadly things can vary from airport to airport. Why is FCO still over-salting? What’s making the panna cotta from JHB so rubbery? If mangoes are out of season in IAD, then why the hell are they still on the plate? Etc.
It’s a little easier for the wines to be consistent, even though they too suffer at the fickle hands of lazy taste buds at altitude. James Cluer, who heads up the airline’s wine program, does an annual blind tasting of more than 1,000 bottles. The airline’s staunch policy of selecting wines purely based on taste rather than labels, scores or price, make for a very varied and unusual onboard selection. Wines are rotated for inbound and outbound flights to keep things fresh for frequent fliers, and the lists are replaced quarterly (except for a few permanent mainstays like the Kopke Colheita 1974 Tawny Port – arguably the only vintage Port offered inflight anywhere in the world). To better understand the affects of taste at 30,000 feet, Cluer and a few of his colleagues recently performed a very rare challenge by sampling wines at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Talk about going the extra mile!
So, on to Qatar’s award-winning Business class dinner meal (prepared by a kitchen somewhere in Jamaica, Queens.)
With the amount of trips the multilingual and beautifully manicured flight attendants in dark green and burgundy uniforms clocked from seat to galley and back, they deserve their own frequent flier miles program. First on the tray table was an amuse bouche of a rather bland disc of Lamb Tikka sitting on a too soft Risotto cake, which was rescued by a mint chutney with a latent spice kick to resuscitate those airborne taste buds.
The few times I have eaten soups on board, they have usually been of the overly salty and peppery variety, and so I was somewhat surprised to see a Pea Mint on the menu. Gorgeous presentation with a dollop of basil oil and micro greens, but the abundance of heavy cream and mysterious absence of mint was disappointing. The crouton didn’t help matters either, as it appeared to have done more mileage than the crew. Not sure where (or when) it was toasted, but it had to be abandoned after two fruitless chewing attempts.
The highlight was the spectacular Classic Arabic Mezze platter. A triumphant triptych of creamy hummus, wonderfully citrusy and tangy tabouleh and a surprisingly sweet moutabel (aka babaganush) served with fresh brown and white pita wedges.
Having seen the pre-plated Heritage tomato, feta and Kalamata olive salad in the galley earlier, I was enormously impressed at how delicately and affectionately the various additions, garnishes and dressings were layered, stacked and tucked into position to yield an incredibly beautiful and flavorful dish.
I fully understood the dilemma of catering to diverse palettes and ethnic cultures by how well the main course options covered ground: a vegetarian, a lamb and a shrimp. Vegetarians seldom get much in-flight love, and so it was encouraging to see such a solid option with the delightfully fluffy and moist Broccoli, potato and blue-cheese tart. It was hard to fault the super-tender, ultra-slow Braised lamb shank perched on a mound of mash with a tangy chickpea and saffron sauce, but the ultimate re-heating challenge had to be the Arabic spiced shrimp. The window for shrimp crunchiness is shorter than Sarah Palin’s temper, so even if these handsome specimens were butter-poached on the ground, by the time they left the galley oven, they had transmuted into coils of mushy paste. Most certainly a very courageous attempt, but all the “machboos” sauce, fried onions and nuts couldn’t put humpty-dumpty together again.
I skipped the ice-cream, fruits and cheeses and indulged on the incredibly tastyCardamom panna cotta. The perfect consistency with a subtle, yet undeniably middle-eastern flavor was accented by a tart accompaniment of rhubarb and apple compote.
Our meal was well paired with about half of the on-board wine options. A refreshingly crisp and tart apple flavored 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Esk Valley, New Zealand. An amazingly rich tobacco, berry, spicy and caramely 2007 Bordeaux from Chateau Monbousquet. The juicy, fruity and honey forward flavored Fritz Haag 2012 Spätlese, and the epitome of in-flight extravagances – a (slightly-too-small) sample of the nutty, marvelously smooth and deliciously dried fruit flavored ’74 Kopke Tawny port.
Bon voyage! Bon appetite!