Lobster, hazelnut brittle and pad thai above the clouds: Each year, the caterers at LSG Sky Chefs put together new menus for Lufthansa passengers. We attended a presentation of their latest creations in Bangkok.
Fabian Fendrich didn’t sleep much last night. Now it’s early morning as he steps into a conference room at the airport in Bangkok and surveys the work of the past few days: a richly laid table with hundreds of different plates laden with every imaginable delicacy from lobster bisque to omelet. On his head, Fendrich wears the tall chef’s hat that marks him out as head chef of LSG Sky Chefs. Now the hat is bobbing through the room and stops in front of a duck breast before floating on toward the desserts. Fendrich straightens a leaf here, checks a label there, sends a dish back to the kitchen. All is well. Let the customer come.
The customer is Lufthansa, today in the person of Thomas Brockenauer, a trained chef and confectioner. He is responsible for in-flight service food, so for all things culinary served to passengers on board. Today, his job is to sample and approve what Fendrich and his team have been working on for the past six months: the new menus for the route Bangkok to Frankfurt. It will take Brockenauer and Fendrich a full three days to sample and discuss all of the recipes. On every flight between Bangkok and Germany, First, Premium Economy and Economy Class must each be served breakfast and an evening meal. The in-flight menu for each class changes every two months. Lufthansa calls each two-month period a “cycle,” so that a year’s plan encompasses six such cycles – and around 480 different dishes.
Fendrich gives his presentation in a neutral setting: Gray carpet, white walls, and blinds at the windows shutting out the view of the airport. Standing in rank and file on white tablecloths are more than 500 small plates – round plates, square plates, deep and shallow plates. The food arranged on them stands out against the subdued colors of the room: Saffron-yellow noodle nests, deep-red tuna and green asparagus all vie for attention. The multitude of colors is intentional: “The dimmed light on board swallows so much color, and food should also be a feast for the eyes,” explains Brockenauer, as he pulls on a white visitor’s coat over his suit. He strides along the rows of tables, scrutinizing all he sees. Each cycle needs balanced menus –fish, meat and a vegetarian dish are a must, but no recipe or ingredient should be repeated too often. Brockenauer picks up the cherry chocolate Donauwelle cake and examines it closely, then gives a sea bass fillet a shove with his thumb. A strawberry on a tart attracts his attention: “They’re tricky,” he tells Fendrich, “they can look quite different in just four hours.”
Two colleagues from Thailand accompany the presentation because they know how a true pad thai or a curry should taste. Vanida Ratanaruetai works in marketing, Sasitohn Prittipongpat is a sales specialist with Lufthansa. “Do all Thais really eat this green rice?” Brockenauer asks. Ratanaruetai looks skeptical. “It’s more for hipsters and health freaks,” she says. As the small group advances, a dish is thrown out here, another praised there. A white chocolate duo filled with berry cream elicits real enthusiasm from Brockenauer: “Now there’s craftsmanship for you, that’s first class!” An orange-colored bundt cake doesn’t meet with his immediate approval, though, because it looks “like a sand pie.”
Andreas Waidmann, a man with a neat parting, mischievous eyes and a handlebar mustache, has also come along to the presentation. Once a chef, he is now the operations manager in Bangkok. He and Brockenauer have known each other forever and are able to argue amicably over a fruit salad. Brockenauer likes the triangular shape of papaya and dragon fruit, but Waidmann is making the case for small rectangles. “That’s far more work for us, think about it, that will be far too expensive for you,” he says – but ultimately has to back down.
This is the greatest challenge in airline catering: reconciling your own standards with the limits of what’s doable. The kitchen has to be creative. Fendrich marinates the strawberry in white vinegar to preserve it. To make sure that every meal fits beneath its aluminum lid, Fendrich cannot pile things on too much: He folds the ingredients, rolls and cuts them into geometric shapes, garnishes them with blossoms and splashes of colorful sauce – and never exceeds a height of 4.5 centimeters. There’s also no place on board an aircraft for flash-fried foods or offal. Hygiene and health regulations require that every meat must have reached a specific core temperature and that sauces must not be too runny because they may spill over the edge of the plate when the airplane takes off.
The Lufthansa subsidiary LSG Group is experienced in all of this since it is, after all, the world’s largest aviation catering company. Under the brand name of LSG Sky Chefs, it supplies more than 300 airlines in 200 locations. In the high season, European wintertime, the operation in Bangkok delivers around 21 000 meals daily. With no fewer than 42 airlines partnered by LSG Sky Chefs in Thailand to serve, Fendrich, 32, presents a new menu virtually every month. Around six months in advance of the presentation to Lufthansa, he receives his brief. The menus for 2019 should “be more modern and yet preserve tradition,” says Brockenauer. He has clear ideas about modern cuisine: “No stews in which the ingredients have mushed together so that the passengers cannot distinguish them,” he says, “that trend has passed.” Salad garnishes are also out, he explains, “the plates are now becoming more minimalist.” In addition to the classics, Fendrich has also included some new culinary trends in the menus. These days, people want to eat fewer carbohydrates and more fish and salad. And more and more passengers are asking for superfoods, sprouts, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
Business Class meanwhile has other preferences than First Class. Whereas tastes tend to be more discreet at the front, but a couple of rows further back, passengers like a little luxury to be visible. Once, Brockenauer tells us, someone suggested that for a change he should serve a really good meatball in First Class. He was skeptical: meatball, seriously? On the other hand, traditional meals were always the most popular. The veal stew is an eternal favorite not only with the passengers, but with the cooks, too. It’s as low-maintenance as it’s delicious, even after being transported and reheated on board. So Brockenauer cast aside all reservations and added meatballs to the First Class menu – and they proved a resounding success.
Once Brockenauer and his team have scrutinized every meal, Fabian Fendrich invites them to taste the food – but not the plates Brockenauer and Fendrich worked with, of course. The cooks have prepared a second batch, heated in the ovens the crews also use on board. More and more trays are carried in and handed around the table. Soon, countless dishes and plates have collected in the middle. Forks cross, discussions fly hither and thither. The duck breast needs to be browner, everyone agrees. The curry tastes better with prawns than with fish, and the veal could do with some couscous as a side. Hundreds of dishes have been tasted and agreements have been reached at least on the basic menus for Economy, Business and First Class.
In the following days, LSG Sky Chefs and Lufthansa will discuss special meals for vegetarians and people with allergies, budgets, prices and the exact menu wording. Starting November 1, the new menu will be served on board flights from Bangkok to Germany, keeping countless passengers fed and satisfied – and contented, too.
ON BOARD …
… air pressure is low and humidity in the aircraft cabin falls to a maximum of ten percent.
IN THE CELLS …
… less oxygen then enters the blood; the dryness inhibits taste and smell receptors.
ON THE TONGUE …
… sweet and salty taste 30 percent less intense in the air; sour and bitter taste the same as on the ground.