By Jo Austin

The inaugural Onboard Hospitality Forum – Asia shone a light on excellence in the region and focused on the growing demand for authentic Asian food of the highest quality onboard. Jo Austin investigates further

They like it fresh, they like it hot, and it has to be authentic, that’s the conclusion of caterers in Asia Pacific as they work to meet onboard demand from the region’s fast expanding travelling ‘middle class’. And that is exactly what visitors to the inaugural Onboard Hospitality Forum – Asia got at a unique ‘Street Food Festival’ run in association with APOT, all within FTE Asia EXPO, Singapore.

Leading the service delivery was SATS, well established as a leading provider of food solutions and gateway service in the region with two inflight kitchens in Singapore and a production capacity of over 115,000 meals. The caterer showed just why it is a culinary powerhouse, serving up dish after dish of delicious locally-inspired cuisine full of flavour.

The company also has an halal boutique bakery and chocolate studio, and a dedicated team of dieticians and food technologists, and manages a repertoire of over 800 weekly inflight menu types within its kitchens. It adopts a technology-driven, people-led approach designed to “harness innovation and empower our people to delight our customers.”

And the ability for onboard cuisine to delight and enhance the passenger experience was a key theme of the new Forum. Mike Pooley, md Purpose-Made Solutions, was formerly a resident of Singapore, presiding over the gategroup multi-brand presence in Asia-Pacific. He says: “In Asia you have to understand the importance of hot food onboard. It has always been a driver to menu development here and there is no sign that will change. Even for the LCCs offering a hot snack or small meal at any time of day remains important. A cold snack simply would not fly.

“The provenance and authenticity are also key criteria. Asia Pacific inflight teams and chefs want local ingredients and flavours and are stringent in ensuring the correct flavour profiles are matched every time. Asian chefs are key for airline kitchens, including those sourcing inbound menus from Europe. The stronger your unit chef’s credentials the better and an ability to talk the right language in terms of food and dialect is a real asset.”

Inflight catering consultant and APOT ceo, Jeremy Clark, agreed and added: “Airlines should be focusing more on destination identity onboard and need to recognise that the food served can bring far more than it costs, it is a part of the destination discovery process and can help celebrate an airline’s destinations as well as being a part of the onboard entertainment.”

Caterers such as Aerofood ACS have shown
how attention to catering detail can help truly transform a carrier’s reputation and it is now widely acclaimed for the products and services it offers to more than 40 international and domestic airlines. Aerofood ACS provides about 70,000 meal sets a day in the region and joined the Onboard Hospitality Forum – Asia with quality, appetising Indonesian cuisine. Empowered by the Minister of Tourism of Indonesia, Aerofood ACS is fast becoming a culinary ambassador, actively working to bring Indonesia’s delicious national cuisine to the international stage.

Getting catering right in the region offers rich rewards. A recent survey by Mordor Intelligence suggests the inflight catering market here is set to see annual growth of eight per cent during 2018-2023 thanks to rapid urbanisation, a resurgence in discretionary spending, increased demand for travel and rising standards of living.

Steven Small of World Routes says the Chinese market is really the one to watch. He says: “China is the world’s second largest aviation market and still growing. During 2022 it will displace the USA as the busiest on earth and by 2036 its market will have a colossal 1.5 billion passengers a year.”

Rising disposable incomes and improved connectivity in countries like India, Vietnam, and China have also given the market impetus, and inflight meals are ranked as a top consideration for these passengers when choosing a flight.

Preparing for growth

Airlines and caterers have been quick to recognise this astounding growth and many are investing heavily in the region. At the same time chefs and caterers worldwide are working to add Asian flavours and styles to their onboard repetoires.

Robert Smithson, gm culinary at dnata catering based in Brisbane, says: “It’s not just flavours and ingredients we are dealing with – we are talking about an entirely different culture, and this is particularly noticeable when it comes to fine dining in the air. It has been a two-way education for us, and our menus are constantly evolving. We have learnt by working closely with our customers, as well as through collaborations.

“Food in China is very regionalised with eight different regional cuisines, and the difference is often in the simple ingredients such as rice. For example, jasmine rice is served out of Hong Kong and a medium grain rice will be served to customers from mainland China.”

Chinese airline customers expect to be inspired and impressed, and to see caterers use the correct cultural etiquette and meticulous presentations. Smithson adds: “Chefs across our network – including some Michelin-star trained chefs – work on both traditional and authentic Chinese cuisine. We increasingly use traditional ingredients such as winter melon, lotus root and century egg.”

Local insights are key

The gategroup, now partly owned by HNA Group (a Chinese conglomerate which owns Hainan Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines amongst others), has entered into a 30-year joint venture with Asiana Airlines in Korea where it has a new kitchen.

The group has hired additional Chinese chefs to ensure authenticity and flies its chefs into the region for workshops with local specialists to ensure they have the flavour combinations right. The team recognises that Asian travellers are looking for regional specific cuisine, have their own comfort foods and want to see those reflected in the onboard choices being offered. •

Regional difference

LSG Sky Chefs has been present in the Asian market since the late 1980s when it launched a joint venture in China, and today it is present at 20 Chinese airports. The caterer has an established track record in providing regional Chinese, Thai and Indian dishes. Says LSG: “Generally passengers out of Korea will choose bibimbab, Japanese passengers choose Japanese dishes and Shanghainese those from Shanghai. We cater different food into Shanghai and Beijing and offer seasonal specialities, such as rice dishes like donburi and char siu rice pot in winter. For non-vegetarians, chicken is the top protein but the Chinese love pork, while Korean and Japanese customers favour beef.”

The company has a new base at Wenzhou Longwan Airport where passenger numbers are growing 10% a year and LSG is the sole caterer currently serving 120 flights a day.

Evolving in partnership

Vietnam Air Caterers is committed to quality too and has a fully Asian team of chefs actively working on projects in this field, creating several national dishes such as banh mi, pho and the very popular spring roll for airline customers in First and Business where all dishes are fresh rather than frozen. The caterer believes really successful delivery of authentic dishes only works if the airline has the appropriate tableware and crew training and is committed to the correct presentation of national dishes.

Taste Vietnam chef Ms Vy brought the flavours of this nation to the Onboard Hospitality Forum – Asia with a focus on fresh ingredients. She said: “Increasingly consumers are focused on wellbeing and as many local dishes are packed with fresh ingredients, Asian food really can taste good and be good for you at the same time.”

Bangkok Air Catering (BAC) believes good food can make all the difference to an airline’s reputation, especially for Economy and LCC pasengers. Its Gourmet Primo subsidiary supplies Asian meals for buy-on-board and md Linus Knobel, says: “We hope one day airlines will treat us more as a partner than caterer, sharing our philosophy around best quality rather than looking for lowest costs. I truly believe that for an airline to stand out it needs to work alongside a gourmet caterer to provide that difference.”

Farm to table dining

Some airlines in the region do seem to recognise the need for quality. Korean Air is well known for its authentic cuisine and signature bibimbap. Its focus on quality is underlined by ownership of an organic farm on Jeju Island which supplies premium, environmentally-friendly produce to redefine the concept of farm-to-table dining at 35,000 feet. While All Nippon Airways (ANA) has launched its ‘We Are Japan’ initiative, aimed at creating a deeper understanding of the nation and culture of Japan. And SIA supports a new local chefs’ collaboration forged by SATS.

Asia is without doubt a vibrant, fast evolving region for airlines, and onboard innovation and culinary excellence are at the heart of all they do. •