A Dubai long haul dinner is served. All photos by the author.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES.
The business class dinner for the Bangkok to Dubai Emirates flight is elegant. My weighty silverware and china plate solidified this, as did the tender scallops, and the profiteroles for dessert.
When I was finished eating, I placed my linen napkin on the table and looked out the window—not an airplane window, but the one in the Bangkok Air Catering conference room.
I was at the company's headquarters to find out how airplane food gets made. My inflight meals seem to be better these days, especially on flights around Asia.
Why the upswing? I asked the company's director of corporate communications, Amorn Rassamesangpetch, to find out.
"There's a limited area for airlines to compete," Amorn said. "Now it comes to food."
Not your average plane profiteroles.
In Amorn's opinion, airlines can only drop their prices so low, only offer so much in-flight entertainment. That leaves room to shine in the culinary department.
It's no small task to make palatable meals for travelers, especially if you're Bangkok Air Catering. The company has 18 airline clients and makes 30,000 meals a day from its 20,000-square-meter property. The company is one of three that caters to airlines coming through Southeast Asia's transit mecca, Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Praenual Jotinujit, the company's assistant sales and customer relations manager, took me on a tour of the domestic and international kitchen. We started with a wardrobe change into the mandatory white lab coat, hairnet, and closed-toe shoes.
On our way to the production areas, it became clear that this wasn't one of those nightmare factories where workers wear diapers because they don't get breaks. Employees were hanging out on couches, gazing at their smartphones, watching TV.
"When people are happy to come to work, they produce happy items," I was told of the Bangkok Air Catering management philosophy.
We washed our hands, walked through a wind tunnel to remove any excess roughage, and lint-rolled our pristine garments one last time before entering the facility.
The Bangkok Air Catering lab conducts random tests on food from raw ingredients to finished products.
My immediate thought was that the place felt sterile, which is exactly what the company is going for. When you're serving 30,000 meals a day, there's no room for error.
To prevent any food safety issues, Bangkok Air Catering complies with HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards.
There's an on-site lab where technicians test random samples from every aspect of production, from raw materials to fully finished dishes.
Throughout the hour-long tour snaking through the factory's organized chaos, Praenual pointed out many different steps in the process when the food gets chilled to kill bacteria.
The precaution is great for keeping food safe, but creates challenges for menu design.
"For airline catering, we have to store the food after it's finished in the freezer at 4 degrees Celsius [about 39 degrees Fahrenheit] for at least four hours to cool the temperature down to stop the growth of bacteria," Amorn said. "That means some food can't be produced.
"Some food doesn't look good after four hours in the freezer, or it doesn't look good after reheating and the food has to be reheated on board."
10,000 square meters of the facility is dedicated to food production.
One of the innocent victims of this reality is pad thai.
"With pad thai, the rice noodle is really good when you have it at restaurant," Amorn said.
"Once you cook it here, it is also very good. But reheating it on board, some noodles may be too hot, some maybe stick to the foil."
Not all hope is lost. Through research and development, the company has figured out ways to make meals work, even popular ones. I saw racks of cooling kaeng hang lay, fresh noodles.
Racks of cooling kaeng hang lay, a Northern Thai dish.
The company doesn't strictly dabble in Thai food, although most ingredients are sourced from Thailand. Bangkok Air Catering brought in chefs from Lebanon, India, and Europe to create authentic international flavors for different clients.
Throughout the factory, large signs display areas for important divisions of production.
The plant is filled with signs to specify halal, non-halal, and kosher production areas.
"Most of the catering is halal; only a small unit is non-halal," Amorn said.
In addition to the signs, employees also wear armbands depending on what areas of the factory they're scheduled to work in. If you're chopping vegetables in the non-halal kitchen, you can't just waltz into the halal area.
Keeping the food and productions separate is key to the Central Islamic of Thailand certification the factory holds.
An employee presents his non-halal arm band, one way the factory makes sure all halal foods are handled properly.
The kosher unit is another large part of the factory. It's certified by Thai Kashrut Services and a very serious deal. I wasn't allowed to tour the facility without approval from a Rabbi. There were also strict security measures to go through. Bangkok Air Catering sells about 6,000 kosher meal boxes every month.
When we walked into the bakery, it smelled like heaven—well, my heaven at least. The air was warm and filled with the aromas of fresh baked bread and pastries, because that's exactly what was going on in the room.
Chanchai rolls out some fresh dough in the bakery.
There were racks and racks of bread rolls waiting for the oven. Employees expertly portioned out dough, rolled globs of it into breadsticks, buns, and loaves. A woman assembled hand-sliced fruit delicately onto little tarts.
Every detail counts, and is meticulously cared for by hand.
I could have skipped the rest of the tour and basked in the glow of hot buns, but the show must go on. We went on to explore areas where final tasks were carried out, like meal packaging, food cart packing, administrative oversight, and delivery crate loading.
Even when everything goes right in the cooking, assembly, and oversight of the meals, there's still room for error before the food lands on your tray table.
"The crew may not exactly know how to heat the food," Amorn said.
He explained that while his company offers training to cabin crews, it's a challenge to reach every flight attendant, since their routes are constantly changing.
In the end, results may vary.
There's also a lot going on between take-off and landing, proper reheating can't be guaranteed, and you could end up with an overcooked rendition of the original plan.
At the end of the tour, Praenual and I stared up at a screen monitoring countless flights circling around, landing in, and taking off from the Suvarnabhumi Airport.
All of those planes were filled with countless passengers, hungry and full, some about to eat profiteroles. Most would never know the insanely detailed journey their in-flight meals took to reach them.