Saturday October 20, 2012
Qatar Airway's first-class dining
By CHRISTINA CHIN
Photos by CHRISTINA CHIN and QATAR AIRWAYS
Qatar Airways promises a ‘culinary journey in the sky’ with its new premium-class menu created by four uber-chefs.
FRESH from garnering the prestigious Skytrax Airline of the Year 2012 for the second consecutive year, Qatar Airways recently unveiled its latest coup by bringing onboard gastronomic geniuses Nobu Matsuhisa, Vineet Bhatia, Tom Aikens and Ramzi Choueiri.
Welcoming the chefs on board, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker promised First and Business Class passengers a “brand new dining experience”.
“The four, handpicked to represent all corners of the world, have inspired millions and our collaboration with them reflects a commitment to redefine the culinary experience for our passengers.”
The chefs all came to Doha to see the equipment Qatar Airways had and spoke to the crew, which helped them prepare the menu. Their signature dishes will only be served in the premium classes.
“Food can be a decisive factor when choosing an airline and that makes a difference between a good and great flight,” says Akbar.
“Each of them is a pioneer who has challenged himself to set a new standard in developing a new range of tempting signature dishes for Qatar Airways. Beyond travel, we want our passengers to explore different cultures and food to make the journey extra special. That said, my good friend Nobu says he will get me to try sushi one day but it’s been years and he has not succeeded,” Akbar shares with a laugh.
Announcing that Qatar Airways will be the first Middle Eastern carrier to receive the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, he says the airline was already taking delivery “as we speak” of the world’s most advanced aircraft carrier. The dishes the chefs created will be served on the Dreamliner and have already been introduced on selected flights.
The chefs, however, would be “too busy running their own restaurants” to prepare their own creations on board, a candid Akbar retorts when asked if passengers could hope to sample food personally prepared by the four.
Akbar was speaking during the Qatar Airways Celebrity Chef press conference at the Al Gassar Resort, West Bay, Doha, last month together with the chefs. He fielded questions from some 50 international journalists before the four held a live cooking demonstration.
On whether Qatar Airways was planning to bring chefs on board the aeroplane to prepare the food like a rival airway, Akbar laughs it off as a “gimmick”.
“Chefs on board a plane do the same job as cabin crew but get paid double. They’ll bring you fish and say they cooked it but that’s exactly what the cabin crew does.
“If you like, I can also have someone onboard in a white jacket but it’s pointless.”
The celebrity chef dishes were launched on Sept 1. At least two of these dishes will be available on medium and long haul flights. They are offered on a rotational basis for the different flights, and the chefs will come up with new menus from time to time.
Akbar hints that there’s more to come.
“We are going to take another step forward with these chefs but I will keep you in suspense,” he says, cryptically.
Having “slaved away” over a hot stove for months, the four chefs share their experiences in coming up with an impressive, mouth-watering array of “5-star dining” dishes especially for premium passengers of the world’s first airline to have its own US$100mil (RM306mil) terminal for Business and First Class travellers.
One of the four Iron Chefs in Iron Chef UK, Tom Aikens, a self-described “precise perfectionist and bulldog in the kitchen”, cites altitude as a main challenge in preparing airline food.
“Cooking at 30,000ft (9,100m) is very different from cooking on the ground – especially with the constraints of preparing food to feed a large group of people.
“When I was coming up with the menu, I had to consider how many ‘moves’ the crew has to make to prepare the dish – anything more than three steps is too much and you can’t have five or six things on a plate. The fact that the cooked dishes are chilled and re-heated is something that had to be taken into consideration as well. I thought I was very technical (in food preparation) but that was before I saw the Qatar crew in action,” he says.
Aikens, whose idea of a perfect “last supper” is scallops (seasoned with just butter, thyme, salt and pepper), medium-rare rib eye steak and traditional fresh strawberry pudding, stresses that a dish doesn’t have to be overly complicated to be great.
“When you’re on a plane for three hours, you don’t really want to have food that’s too elaborate,” he says.
Spices had to be enhanced because taste buds change in the air and recipes sometimes had to be reworked many times over to get the final product but Aikens says he is happy with the results and confident that passengers will love what the chefs have created.
Aikens received a strong culinary calling at age 12. Plunging into French and British cooking, Aikens received his first Michelin star as head chef of Pied ŕ Terre in London at the tender age of 26. He has worked with “food royalties” like David Cavalier, Pierre Koffmann, Richard Neat, Joël Robuchon, Gerard Boyer and Michelin-starred Philip Britten. Expressing his respect for his cooking comrades, Aikens says each brings something very different to the table to cater to the wide spectrum of passengers.
“That’s why we were brought on board,” he offers.
“I’ve been on many airlines and you really remember good and bad meals, so consistent quality is what we strive for. We are all going to try each other’s dishes from time to time to see if there are areas to improve on,” he says.
Holding firmly to the philosophy that a “happy and full stomach is the secret to a happy mind”, Vineet Bhatia introduces himself simply, as someone who “cooks for a living”.
A young Vineet dreamt of being a pilot as he watched planes cast their massive shadows over his childhood home in Mumbai, India, but fate had other plans for the twice-starred Michelin chef and author.
At age 17, Vineet took the national defence exam with the hope of joining the Indian Air Force but he failed the physical part of the test and ended up embracing his second love, cooking.
“Indians have always put food on a high pedestal – the colours, texture and smells are all part of the experience and I try to put that on the plate.
“With my early fascination with planes, it’s a no-brainer for me to collaborate with the world’s best. My goal was to create 5-star food for a 5-star airline.
“When you look at the food, your senses must come alive. You must taste, feel and touch. Imagine a golden brown poppadom cracking in your hands – that’s the kind of food experience I want you to have,” he says.
The economics degree holder earned a Michelin star in 2001 for Zaika, a restaurant in London’s fashionable Chelsea district. He is the first Indian chef-restaurateur to receive this honour since the inception of the Guide. He received another star in 2006 for his restaurant, Rasoi.
Vineet believes that in an aircraft, passengers crave “comfort food with a wow factor”.
“In the air, your taste buds are dried out and numb (so caffeine and alcohol aren’t your friends). In such conditions, people want to be pampered,” he notes.
“I’ve seen lots of shortcomings and downright awful experiences in other airlines that I wanted to overcome. The crew onboard are skilled but they are not chefs so it was necessary to hold master classes for the team to understand the philosophy and food taste concept – it’s a very technical and scientific process.
“In terms of ingredients, I stayed away from items that would dry out or greens like cabbage because if you throw up, the whole plane will smell. Garlic and squid are tricky too because the former has a strong smell while the latter can easily get rubbery if not correctly prepared,” he says.
Promising passengers a “magic carpet ride of spices in the air”, Vineet says eating onboard is no different from dining in a top-notch restaurant.
“You take good memories from a good restaurant – I want you to have a similar feeling dining on Qatar Airways. With good food, time really flies.”
The name Nobuyuki Matsuhisa may not ring a bell but mention Nobu, and chances are jaws will drop involuntarily. Like the many celebrities who flock to his restaurants around the world, the highly-acclaimed owner of Nobu and Matsuhisa is better known by his glamour name (think Madonna, Leo and De Niro).
Speaking of celebrities, Nobu’s skill in the kitchen is so legendary that Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, California, was an instant hit, especially with the who’s who of Hollywood. It was at actor Robert De Niro’s urging that Nobu in New York City was born in 1994.
The Beverly Hills-based cookbook author currently has 29 restaurants in 25 cities worldwide, with plans to open a restaurant in Doha next year. “(Collectively), we have restaurants in all five continents so we know how to make international food.
“For me, Nobu on Qatar Airways is about great food and great service – that’s what I want to hear passengers say. Japanese food is simple and light – that’s what I like when I fly and that’s what my dishes are.”
Born in Saitama, Japan, the son of a lumber merchant’s exposure to life in the kitchen was at the age of seven when his older brother took him to a sushi restaurant for the first time.
Young Nobu found himself fascinated by everything about the environment and immediately knew he was destined for a career in the kitchen. At the age of 24, he accepted an offer from a customer to open a restaurant in Lima, Peru. Armed with a signature style of weaving Peruvian influences into his dishes, he opened a restaurant in Alaska. The success of the restaurant was fleeting as it was razed by fire.
Saddled with debts to pay, a dejected Nobu went to Los Angeles to work at a sushi bar and in 1987, cleared his debts and opened his own restaurant. It’s been turbulence-free since.
Admitting that nothing is ever 100% perfect, Nobu, who has a penchant for wasabi and french fries, points to the importance of making sure that food inside an aircraft is, as much as possible, of “restaurant quality”.
Raw fish is “difficult to control”, Nobu says, but having been fluent in sushi by the age 20, the humble, pint-size sushi maestro can tell if a fish is fresh just from slicing it.
“The same presentation and detail must be present when my dishes are served on board a plane. My most famous dish is the black cod and I assure you that the taste is the same in my restaurant and on Qatar Airways. It’s about training the airline crew to get the food temperatures right.”
Lebanon-born Ramzi Choueiri definitely felt the heat but he wasn’t about to leave the kitchen. The accomplished author, TV presenter and first person of Arabic descent to hold three Guinness World Records (the largest servings of hummus, tabbouleh and falafel), felt a great responsibility to present the best of Arab cuisine on Qatar Airways.
“There was great pressure to do justice to traditional Lebanese food and I made it a point not to stray from the culture of Arabic cuisine. I wanted our traditional food to maintain its identity while recreating it to represent lots of flavours that balance both Western and Arabic tastes.
“I had to be mindful not to be aggressive with flavours because we are catering to an international palate. Ultimately, respecting the identity of the dish is important,” the University of Lyon law and economics graduate shares.
Ramzi who studied Culinary Art at Britain’s Bournemouth College and went on to earn an internship in France with world-renowned chef Jean Masson at the latter’s famous establishment, La Minaudičre, proceeded to study the art of pastry and baking with French chef Bernard Moine, president of the “Syndicat des Pâtissiers-Boulangers” de France and was made an honorary member of the union.
“I’ve always wanted to take my cuisine to new heights and with this Qatar Airways collaboration, we’re able to present international standard food even in an airplane.
“So far the response has been very good.
“Passengers are surprised to see how difficult recipes and Arabic spice blends can be recreated on the plane and they say the aroma is akin to dishes served in a 5-star restaurant,” he says beaming proudly.
A household name in the Middle East, the accomplished Medal of Lebanese Merit recipient was named top chef in the Arab world by leading media outlets such as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Associated Press, L’Express, BBC, Radio France Internationale and CNN.
Air travel affects taste buds