“Everyone says that the Irish ingredients are some of the best,” whispers Irish cabin crew member Laura with a wink, after serving my grilled Irish salmon as we cruised at 40,000 feet somewhere over the Black Sea on an Emirates flight from Dublin to Dubai.
Likewise, you could tell that Ahmed on the Dubai to Melbourne flight was particularly proud serving a traditional Arabic Mezze, alongside other typically Middle Eastern fare.
Part of an Emirates cabin crew team with nationalities now numbering more than 140, because of Emirates unique approach to menu development Laura and Ahmed aren’t the only ones who feel a connection to the food served onboard.
Emirates is the only airline to have food available from every region in its network. Offering authentic cuisines from countries its customers come from and to places they are travelling to is no mean feat given that the airline flies to over 150 destinations.
Since 1996 Emirates has been developing a special relationship with one of these destinations, Australia, and now sees 92 flights out of five Australian cities every week. Backing these take offs are investments in the local market and food and wine producers.
I was on the way to Australia to get an understanding of how Emirates creates menus like the one I had just enjoyed; to investigate the collaborative process it takes for these meals to take flight – from producer to plane.
Through the airline, I got the opportunity to meet the bakers behind the bread, the family behind the feta, and the chefs behind the culinary creativity..
Part of an international group of journalists, on day one of our trip we were greeted by Joost Heymeijer, Senior Vice President of Catering at Emirates.
The kind-hearted and witty Dutch man we were to get to know over the next few days, is not only responsible for the 100 million meals served on board each year, but menu concept, development, producers, wine procurement, lounges, duty-free, and everything in between – as he puts it: “anything that would fall out if you turned a plane upside down and shook it.” .
“Food and wine is emotional and quite personal,” he began. “What we aim to do at Emirates is to create experiences that are quite special, but also exceedingly simple.”
“The food aboard Emirates is not made on conveyor belt set up, but by chefs working in the same environment as any restaurant or hotel kitchen.”
Like elsewhere on their international routes Emirates has nurtured relationships with local producers across all the region before putting the select ingredients in the hands of carefully chosen caterers to create dishes that represent the unique identity and culture of Australia on a plate.
Producers like Brasserie Bread, who partnered with Emirates five years ago together breaking the mould of the usual airline practice of reheating frozen bread roll.
For the first time Emirates gave their passengers on board on flights from Australia slices of sourdough, freshly baked and sliced in the Brasserie Bread’s bakeries and packed in oven proof bags ready to serve.
“That has been a great change in airline food that we have been proud to be a part of,” says founder Michael Klaussen.
Michael set up Brasserie Bread 21 years ago as a bakery that offered fresh bread specifically for restaurants and food service, a gap in the market he encountered when he himself struggled to source sourdough for his restaurant in Sydney.
Michael shows us the same sourdough starter that he created in 1995, which has been feeding three times a day ever since. “It’s like having a baby,” he laughs.
Now alongside their sourdough loaves, across three bakeries Brasserie Bread bakers roll 1200 rolls of bread by hand per hour, supplying Emirate with 10,000 pieces of single origin bread and all butter pastries each week.
A mind-boggling figure that only begins to seem possible when you witness the bakers in action; rhythmically rolling, moulding, and cutting at an astonishing speed. “If you remove the personal element you remove the soul of the bread,” says Michael.
Another ground breaking move by Brasserie Bread was Michael’s quest to find out exactly where his wheat comes from.
“Learning the provenance of our food has become the norm, but wheat was an ingredient that was completely divorced from the end product. So we went on a mission to remarry the two.”
Today the bakery uses exclusively the highest quality grain from farmers in two specific regions in Southern Australia.
What’s bread without a chunk of creamy cheese? Next stop on our trip was to Yarra Valley Dairy. Set up by Mary Mooney over 21 years ago, for the past ten years the dairy has been working with Emirates.
“Being a small business the contract with Emirates gave us the opportunity to start producing gorgeous small batch cheeses,” says sales manager Nicky.Of the 20 varieties they produce, their signature marinated Persian Fetta (not a spelling mistake), and Black Ash Savourine make up their bespoke offering for the airline.
The fetta is served not only regional Emirates flights but across the Emirates network – amounting to an order of 15,000 kilograms annually.
The dairy uses cow and goat milk from local Yarra Valley farms, explains Nicky. “We use the best possible milk to make the best possible cheese. The milk is so creamy it’s almost yellow.”
Over a cheese appreciation workshop and lunch spread at Yarra Valley Dairy that day we sample the other regional cheeses that make up the cheese board on flights from Australia.
Sharing the table with us was David Johnson, a fifth generation cheesemaker from Tarago River Dairy, pioneers of Australian artisan cheese making, creating Australia’s first commercially available blue cheese, and sample among their offering the famously creamy Gippsland Blue.
Elsewhere on the table a wheel of red wax mature cheddar from another Victoria state dairy, Maffra, is cut into wedges in front of us, just as it freshly portioned out by the cabin crew mid-flight.
A similarly tangy cheddar from the Ashgrove Dairy in Tasmania run by the Bennett family is another hit with the group.
From the Yarra, we head back into Melbourne city where Regional Catering Manager Antony McNeil and his team had flown from Dubai to take over the extensive kitchens of Caulfield Racecourse for the day, to talk us through the 14 month process behind transitioning a new menu.
Antony has been rewriting the approach an airline takes to regional and seasonal food; writing provenance into the menu.
“We see our airline as a wonderful platform to share Australia’s produce with the world and to support local producers.”
To provide a unique menu for each individual route across their global network, Antony works with regional catering managers and the concept development team in the test kitchens in Dubai to whittle countless dishes down to just a handful.
The new menu for the Australian route, designed in partnership with Emirates caterers on the ground Alpha, will be launched in May 2017.
Antony gave us a sneak peak at the new dishes that focus on simple well-cooked food, putting emphasis on ingredient quality over quantity; whipping up there and then appetisers smoked Tasmanian salmon and an entrée of slow cooked beef cheek from Stockyard Beef.
Emirates has to its advantage the youngest fleet in the world, ensuring conditions similar to dining on the ground and meaning that bold flavours are a preference for Antony and his team of chefs, rather than a prerequisite to overcome muted taste buds.
Antony says that consistency is something that are constantly striving to perfect. While dishes are inspired by the hugely diverse flavours from varied cuisines that make up the Australian dining scene, in the end of the day recipes have been standardised in such a way that they can executed with ease by cabin crew.
They take into consideration the challenges of service at 40,000 feet, like unexpected turbulence, that cabin crew have just over a minute to plate each dish and that all meals when plated must be below 5cm to fit in trays.
Seems like a lot of work for plane food right? But it’s that very perception of ‘plane food’ that Emirate is working so tirelessly to overturn.
Emirates is an aspirational airline in every aspect, and this is no less the case when it comes to their dining aboard their flights – which has become part of the excitement, and not just something a captive audience has to endure.
After a whirlwind trip, I left the land down under in style aboard an Emirates Airbus A380. Though I couldn’t help but feel the tug of a hundred invisible threads connecting the plane to the producers, growers and chefs in the country that we was leaving behind.
I didn’t resist the offer of an extra slice of sourdough, knowing it had come from Michael and the team and Brasserie Bread, but I did manage to resist leaning over the divide between my neighbor and I and filling him in on the source of the grain that bread was made with.
Accepting that while every passenger will not get to opportunity I had, to meet the producers and the chefs that put together their meals, Emirates is rising to the challenge to tell that story to their customers through the food they serve every day.
As Joost puts it: “to prove that against all the odds with great ingredients, great will, and great chefs you can deliver something quite spectacular in a metal cigar at 40,000 feet.”
For more information on Emirates or to book your own journey visit www.emirates.com.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.