Gordon Smith reports on the development of the temple food-inspired vegan cuisine served in all three cabin classes of Korean Air international flights.
There’s a quirky collection of letters for almost everything in the aviation industry but few are as important as those used for special meal requests. Now, joining the likes of LFML (low-fat meal) and NLML (non-lactose meal) there is a new kid on the block – VKML, the vegan Korean meal.
In March, Korean Air unveiled vegan meals showcasing local flavours and ingredients. Positioned as a more sustainable choice, the range is available to all passengers flying internationally from the airline’s Seoul hub.
While automation is used for high-volume tasks, these special meals are still assembled and packed by hand. This is labour intensive but ensures that exacting demands are met – something which is particularly important when dealing with food allergies or religious requirements.
The fortunes of any catering department are intrinsically intertwined with those of its airline clients and this was made painfully clear during the pandemic. The crisis resulted in significant redundancies as Korean Air’s usual network was slashed and the carrier pivoted efforts towards its lucrative cargo division. It turns out that pallets aren’t quite as hungry as passengers.
The layoffs were tough but even bigger sacrifices were to come when the company sold prized assets to shore up its fragile balance sheet amid extreme market uncertainty. As well as real estate investments and some of its hotel portfolio, the sale included its catering and duty-free division.
From an operational perspective, to combat the spread of COVID-19, major adjustments were made to the onboard food and beverage service. Touchpoints were minimised and the presentation of many dishes was revised. These simplified meals were in place for more than two years, until June 2022.
Korean vegan food
Korean Air’s food experts were delighted to get their teeth stuck into an exciting new initiative. Do Woong Na Culinary Chef of the In-Flight Catering Planning Team at Korean Air, offers an insight into the creative and operational process behind the new vegan choices: “In February last year we launched a major project examining what we were going to do after COVID-19. On the menu-planning side, one of the main ideas was to create a vegan option. The chefs started to brainstorm and study concepts which resulted in the development of a timeline and ultimately led towards the introduction of the new menus. This wasn’t always easy as we had to continuously monitor the status of the pandemic but after summer , when the signs were looking much more favourable, we started to speed things up.”
Na and his colleagues spent weeks visiting local religious sites to develop their understanding of vegan temple food before considering how it could translate to long-haul flights. A year in the making, the results are distinctive flavour profiles and textures. Many unique to Korean cuisine are apparent, with ingredients such as seaweed, shitake mushroom and burdock acting as cornerstones of the menu.
While this foray into the world of vegan food is new for Korean Air, Na highlighted that up to six vegetarian special meals are already available for passengers, including raw and dairy-free alternatives. Both the new and existing choices must be booked at least 24 hours before departure via the airline’s website or app.
The team believe the Korean menu will be popular among passengers seeking a more eco-friendly choice, as well as those following a vegan diet.
Na and his colleagues spent weeks visiting local religious sites to develop their understanding of vegan temple food before considering how it could translate to long-haul flightsGordon Smith
Seasonality is a pillar of genuine sustainability and Na’s menu reflects this. While ingredients such as goguma (Korean yam) are available year-round and a regular fixture on menus, others feature only for three-month stints, when at their seasonal best. Where possible, all of the vegetables used are sourced domestically, further reducing the carbon intensity of each dish.
Although it’s early days for the new menu, Na says his team are keeping an eye on possible trends: “We’re closely monitoring the data to find out which routes have the most passengers requesting the new menu. It’ll be very interesting to see if it is more popular with Korean or international travellers.”
Na explains that the airline has a robust system where its cabin crews are encouraged to document relevant feedback from customers about its onboard hospitality. In isolation, these can be of limited relevance but when considered at scale they provide powerful real-world indicators of what’s working and what’s not – critical insights in as competitive a market as commercial aviation.
Reflecting on the successful roll-out of the project, Na says: “After all of the challenges of the pandemic, we’re proud to be the only airline that has created its own exclusive country-style vegan menu. It’s been a lot of hard work, but we hope it will help change perceptions about what inflight catering in all cabin classes can look and taste like.”