July 25, 2024

Looking good

Are your meals 'insta-worthy'? The presentation of onboard catering can make or break an airline’s reputation in this social media age. We examine the challenges and potential benefits of getting it right...

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Unfortunately for Qantas, catering pictures doing the rounds on social media in recent months have painfully triggered thousands of less-than-complimentary words about their food service.

Both inflight and lounge meals took a hammering after two travellers posted unflattering images of meals served in March. While some comments insisted it was the taste that mattered, food presentation is now clearly more important for airlines than ever before. All caterers will sympathise because the truth is, ensuring things look good inflight is never easy. Plus, we can be pretty certain those dishes did not look as bad as they appeared online when they were designed and contracted.

The challenge

LSG Group Head of Culinary Excellence (EMEA), Nicholas Vass, certainly empathised: “This is honestly the biggest daily challenge we all face – to get the dish to the passenger looking just how we envisaged it in the kitchen. From kitchen to passenger, the food moves many times – into the trolley, into the truck, along a possibly very bumpy and pot holed road in some locations, onto a loader, along the aisles, into the galley. At every moment there is opportunity for it to be bashed about. Then, it is part of a wider onboard service and has to work for the crew delivery – reheating, plating, service. As inflight chefs we think about these things constantly for every dish. We have to factor in every potential issue that could effect the final presentation.”

The risks

LSG Group is among those working with a lot of data and feedback to fully understand what happens to the food after it leaves the kitchens and adjusts menus accordingly. This has become increasingly important. Vass says: “We certainly do feel the pressure of social media every day – especially since the advent of onboard wifi. A problem or positive response to a dish can be out in the world before a flight has even landed, let alone the feedback being sent to the kitchen. We have to make sure we execute every dish well. The risk of horror stories is there but get it right and both passengers and our airline clients can use food positively on social media to build the brand and show the value. This can be especially useful for less well-known locations, not necessarily well regarded for great food experiences. When people see meals on a flight to Africa or India, for example, look incredible and are well reviewed, it can even help change perceptions about that destination and drive ticket sales.”

This pressure, he says, applies in all cabins. “All classes of traveller ultimately has access to the internet and on the internet presentation matters. Premium cabins may have the benefit of better china and serviceware, volumes are lower and crew have more time to support the presentation, but in Economy we still pay a lot of attention to presentation because there it is a volume game and you can have many more people commenting and sharing, so your impact may be far greater.”

Gerard Bertholon, Chief Strategy Officer at Cuisine Solutions, agrees and sees a similar pressure impacting cruise cuisine. “Many cruise lines now have high-end restaurants onboard that can charge a premium price for those beyond the included dining,” he says. “They need consistent, reliable dishes and great quality despite the inevitable high turnover of their kitchen staff. Competition for business is tough and they are significantly raising the bar with celebrity collaborations for an upscale offering. Key to success in this is that everything must look good because everyone is taking photos of every meal. Although it pains me as a chef to say this, sometimes it’s even more important to the customer that it looks good than it tastes good! Good looks will promote the product for them as a great dish may generate thousands of positive images on social media. They see that it is increasingly better to spend on the presentation of great food, than increase marketing budgets.”

He sees airlines also beginning to recognise this and spend more on quality cuisine with a view to capturing that mass marketing benefit. “A great picture on Instagram or X (formerly Twitter) has a big impact. As airlines work with better catering chefs and celebrity names, that emphasis on ‘wow’ factor presentation becomes a key selling point. This is especially important for the next generation of travellers who now rarely book a restaurant without scrolling reviews and images of the meals first.”

The experience

Laura Schlaadt, Managing Director at Frankenberg, agrees social media has changed priorities but adds: “On a long haul flight the meal is not only food but also entertainment. Passengers have a lot of time to focus on what is in front of them so presentation plays an important role. We give special attention to detail in this regard and always try to calculate the worst outcomes/worst impacts of say turbulence, extended reheating, wrong timings or temperatures, or improper defrosting as these can destroy the original appearance of the product. We aim to counter these issues in the meal design process.”

The role of food inflight is also changing claims Richard Wake, Insight & Innovation Director, En Route. He says: “Food is evolving into a more sensorially rich and sometimes surprising experience. Elevating culinary choices by using standout, signature ingredients can capture the passenger’s attention and engagement. Enhancing contrast, being playful with the flavour and aesthetics and adding a pinch of surprise gives a product or service the power to elicit feelings of joy and happiness.”

Bertholon agrees: “People are more open, they expect innovation. They don’t want unidentifiable dishes that confuse them, they want to recognise every ingredient and for it to be bright, simple and clear, ideally with an added twist that makes them say, ‘hey that’s nice, that’s different, that’s an experience’. More and more they are looking for an emotion from the dish, a connection, a surprise. I’m not talking about something weird but something interesting. They don’t need 20 new things in one dish but a little something that is different and thoughtful. If the food looks good, your mind already believes it tastes good before you even try it.”

The look

The Snackboxtogo team points to inflight research which shows the appearance of food significantly impacts its perceived taste. They say: “In the unique environment of an aircraft cabin, where sensory perceptions may be altered due to altitude and pressure, the visual-taste connection becomes even more pronounced. A visually appealing meal can enhance the overall dining experience, making passengers feel more satisfied and content.”
For this reason, they see ingredients as ‘Aesthetic Ambassadors’. “The aesthetics of food are not just about how it looks but are intricately linked to how it tastes and how it makes us feel. Visual appeal inflight is paramount. Vibrant colours, intricate plating and fresh ingredients not only stimulate the appetite but also evoke a sense of luxury and comfort. Attention to detail makes the passenger feel appreciated.”

Mohammad Farran, General Manager of Bangkok Air Catering (BAC), notes similar studies and says: “In the rarefied atmosphere of the cabin, aesthetics and taste have to be woven together perfectly. Visual presentation significantly influences perceptions of flavour and satisfaction, making aesthetics a crucial component of the dining experience. From vibrant colours stimulating the appetite to elegant plating to enhancing the ambiance, the relationship between how food looks and tastes at altitude is an art form unto itself.”

Frankenberg’s Schlaadt also believes the way each meal is created in the kitchen has an impact. “We treat each meal as if it’s for a table for two even though we are producing bigger batches. We believe that a passionate team preparing all components by hand, delivers a meal with a totally different appearance to a meal assembled by machines. A meal prepared with pumps, immediately give the impression of industrial food production and that impacts taste. As we say in German: ‘Das Auge isst mit’ – the eye tastes as well – so we put a lot of effort into buying the best raw materials, cooking and seasoning as in a restaurant kitchen and shock freezing immediately after plating, to preserve the vibrant fresh colour, texture and nutrition.”

The ingredients

In terms of ingredient choices, Vass insists the important thing is to choose ingredients that can ‘sing’ through the entire end-to-end process and to be aware that this can vary at every station. “The aesthetic goal for an inflight meal is to make it as much like a restaurant meal as possible,” he says. “It should look like it was freshly cooked. Greens should stay green and meat should look just seared. While cherry tomatoes may be popular for a pop of colour, I do not want ingredients on a dish unless they really add something. Likewise a sprig of parsley won’t help a bad meal improve. I never put things on the plate just for the sake of the look, they have to add something to the dish, there has to be a reason for everything. Yes use tomatoes as a sauce, in a chutney or stewed down, well seasoned and as an integral part of the dish, but not just to hide something less-than perfect underneath.”

Salime Hazife, Managing Director at Foodfolk, agrees chefs can prioritise aesthetics through their ingredients. “Our chefs choose ingredients that not only retain their colour during cooking but also retain their shape and texture during the reheating process. The look will set the tone for the dining experience. Fresh, in season vegetables feature heavily as well as herbs and wholegrains. A lot of our meals are delivered pre-plated and that means sauces need to be the right consistency to prevent spills and plating needs to be simple yet elegant to avoid components falling en route. How the food looks really does set the first impression on how good the meal will be.“

Flying Food Group’s Nicolas Rondeau supports this view: “The aesthetics of a particular ingredient can be important, as a good looking ingredient can become the main focus point of a dish, but while food needs to look fantastic it must also taste great, so cooking methods, sauces and seasoning are critical. Food presentation
and menu design also need to align with the airline service methods and of course fit in with the available airline equipment. Meal service should help enhance the airline brand and a harmonisation between equipment and food is very important for this.”

Dress it up

Condiments and dressings can add engagement, too. Claudio Castigloni, Brand Manager at Montevibiano, says: “Mono-dose oils and dressings inspire passenger interaction with the meal and if they are breaking the seal they are instantly assured the best quality. Our olive oil business was so successful in this, we added different flavours, pairing olive oil with orange juice, rosemary and many other natural flavours which can add a twist to a dish instantly. This is super popular and we now have 16 flavours. Airlines embrace these as a way of adding flavour and following trends fast.”

On the back of this, the company has now also invested in brand partners to develop top-end pizza, pasta and tiramisu, developing a range of visually-attractive, high-quality Italian specialities.

Edible garnishes and finishes can also enhance the visual appeal and contribute significantly to their taste and presentation. Marc Warde, Special Meal Program Director at Foodcase, says: “Finishing oils, sauces, and fresh herbs can add layers of flavour complexity and elevate the overall dining experience. Innovative techniques such as flavoured tuiles/seeds and incorporating textures like crispy breads can further enhance the aesthetic appeal of dishes while ensuring they remain practical and safe for consumption.”

To address the logistical challenges effectively he says: “Meals need to be robust enough to withstand the rigors of flight and need to be quickly regenerated without compromising quality. Using shapes, moulds and garnishes strategically can help visually while minimising potential hazards like dripping fat or overflowing sauces.”

The crew

He also flags up the importance of comprehensive crew training on plating techniques, an area that Schlaadt also believes is critical. “Crew and their trainers are key – they see the final product every day, they know what works well in their ovens and what does not and they know what might look pretty when properly reheated but messy when not. We can learn a lot from them,” she says. “If the team onboard is passionate about the food and convinced of the taste and quality, they have a big influence on how the food reaches the passenger. Not only via the perfect reheating but also by presenting the meals with a smile, explaining the components and serving with pride. If the crew joins a workshop and sees how much attention to detail and passion goes into the meals, they can carry that onwards.”

Whether it’s a picture in an onboard retail menu, a review site or on an airline booking site, a good food photo really can say a lot – just as a bad photo can, too. Bertholon concludes: “Pictures are powerful because they really do affect decision making. Airlines need to think about this more and more. Food is now part of the booking decision making and will be increasingly key.

“It may mean more work to meet this demand but those airlines that get this right really will win out over their competitors.”