From imaginative tasting menus to in-flight sommeliers, the world’s best airlines are setting a new standard for dining above the clouds
Forget your limp cheese toastie with coffee that tastes… well, hot and nothing else. Around the globe, the world’s most innovative airlines are reaching for a new standard in sky-high cuisine. Led by First Class services, this drive towards gourmet dining hits well beyond the cliché of bad airline food to a sphere where ambition and flair are standard.
Using scientific insight into how our senses shift up in the air, experts in the luxury sector are starting to experiment with techniques that influence our perception of taste in a high-altitude, low-pressure environment. Personalisation now takes centre stage – mirroring a shift in the travel industry at large. Inflight dining at its finest involves meticulous attention to detail, from airport concierges who can arrange pre-flight feasts in private lounges to elaborate, destination-led cocktails served onboard in the First Class bar.
Read more: “Why I love airports as a solo traveller”
At the same time, industry specialists are translating a booming appetite for local, seasonable food into regional tasting menus created in partnership with Michelin-starred chefs. Restaurant delivery is an assumed part of this scene, with extra leg room in Business and First Class allowing for flourishes such as fresh flowers, fine china platters and pristine table linen. It’s not unusual to find a team of sommeliers in First Class, as well, who can advise customers on the best local vintages in the airline’s home or destination country.
Of course, much of this luxury is out of reach for the majority of us who don’t travel on an upgrade. But where First Class leads, economy often follows; as etiquette and ideas around airline cuisine filter through the system. For a taste of how the other half lives – and a flavour what lies ahead for inflight meals – come join us as we peek through the keyhole at some of the world’s finest airline food:
Pan-fried salmon with lemongrass fumet
The airline: Emirates
Our taste buds are dampened at altitude, so fresh, punchy seasoning is key. Emirates’ First Class à la carte menu includes carefully curated delights such as pan-fried salmon with coriander pesto (above). This dish uses a combination of lemongrass fumet, shiitake mushrooms and pak choi to elevate its flavours and deliver zest to the palate.
Read more: Golden rules for a travelling vegetarian
First Class dining in Emirates also gives a nod to regional and seasonal food. During summer, for example, passengers flying to India are treated to an Alphonso mango layer cake, while creamy burrata and tomato appetisers are on the menu for guests en-route to Italy. Fellow “globalistas” can network with one another over canapés, cocktails and mocktails (including a tasty-sounding virgin cucumber gimlet) in the First Class lounge and bar area.
Steak sandwich on a sourdough baguette
The airline: Qantas
Qantas was ahead of the crowd when it teamed up with restauranteur Neil Perry for its First Class service in 1997 – and the relationship endures to this day.
The airline’s “restaurant in the sky” includes crowd-pleasing options that draw from expert technique and hearty flavours. Quantas’ signature steak sandwich features a fillet of locally sourced beef served on a sourdough baguette, rocket leaves and tomato and chilli relish (above). Tradition then meets innovation with ideas such as the indigenous-inspired tasting plate, with award-winning Green Ant goat’s cheese, Tuckeroo pepperberry oatmeal biscuits and Davidson plum pickles.
Wine-wise, the airline also aims high, with a team of on-board sommeliers who can advise on the best boutique producers from vineyards across Australia, New Zealand and Champagne, France.
Miso crusted seabass
Airline: American Airlines
American Airlines works with a network of global chefs to personalise dishes depending on where you’re headed. It also offers its First Class customers a pre-flight restaurant service with regionally inspired dishes and hand-crafted cocktails in its Flagship Lounges, which pop up at select airports across the States.
Once in the air, First Class flyers can tuck into delicacies such as miso-crusted seabass served with egg fried rice, black bean sauce and Chinese broccoli. Each entrée is carefully paired with an inflight wine to maximise flavour. For this option, the airline recommends a glass of the Château Gassier Côtes de Provence rosé, with notes of guava and grapefruit to compliment to freshness of the seabass.
Coconut mousse with ginger mayonnaise
Lufthansa’s First Class “dine on demand” concept features a monthly changing wine list edited by world champion sommelier Markus Del Monego. He scours the globe for little-known vintages spanning four different red and white varieties, in a signature franchise that the airline’s First Class guests have come to know and love.
Menus change according to destination, and might include anything from coconut mousse with curry bok choy, cilantro and ginger mayonnaise to decadent sushi platters. The airline prides itself on personal touches, such as a caviar service that operates as an extra course, and apricot sorbet flavoured with champagne upon request. Tableware is also important, and each serving comes with glass carafes, a red rose and individual salt and pepper mills.
Apricot and almond tart with dessert wine
Passengers travelling by SWISS First and Business are treated to guest menus that showcase some of Switzerland’s finest haute cuisine. Every three months, a leading chef – usually from one of the country’s Michelin-starred restaurants – comes on-board to direct culinary efforts, and spotlight regional specialties.
The latest recruit is Philippe Gobet, executive chef at Le Berceau des Sens; the first educational restaurant in Switzerland to receive a Michelin star. Gobet’s menu draws from the Canton Vaud in Western Switzerland, and includes exquisite treats such as veal tenderloin with truffle sauce and chanterelles, and an apricot and almond tart (above) with matching dessert wine. Both wine and cheese are sourced from small producers in the Vaudois countryside, and flavours are adapted to ensure they translate in the low-pressure environment.
Dark chocolate fondant with summer berries
The airline: Air Canada
Montreal-based chef Antonio Park is the latest ambassador for Air Canada’s culinary, bringing his Korean-Argentinian heritage to bear in a series of bespoke dishes served on the airline’s Asia and South America routes. Park, who also spent part of his career working in Tokyo, will begin with a menu that fuses together Canadian ingredients with Japanese techniques for the Montreal to Tokyo–Narita flight.
Park joins a panel of culinary talent already in play at Air Canada, including celebrated Vancouver chefs David Hawksworth and Vikram Vij. À la carte dishes worthy of the airline’s “Signature Class” service include smoked Ontario duck breast, smoked trout niçoise salad and dark chocolate fondant with blackberry coulis (above). A wide-ranging drinks menu is curated by wine writer and sommelier Véronique Rivest. Make room, too, for the signature cocktail made from bourbon, ginger ale and maple syrup. Santé!
Images: airlines’ own