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How chefs at Gate Gourmet make food taste good at high altitudes

Airline caterer Gate Gourmet prepares meals for clients around the world.

Its Calgary operation is located next to the airport and employees close to 100 staff.

Each day, those staff make some 5,000 meals for travellers in the sky over Europe and North America.

“The food that’s actually delivered to the customers in the air is very, very good food,” said Tony Colliss, Gate Gourmet president and managing director.

“I would love to be able to eat that in our cafeteria every day, but we don’t get that food. It’s special for our customers, it’s designed for them and it’s boarded for their customers.”

Colliss has worked in the airline industry for 39 years and says he remembers when passengers sitting in all classes received meals included in their ticket price.

“Today, that’s a little bit different,” he said. “But there’s still good food onboard the aircraft, in some of the business classes and a lot of good food for sale in the economy classes.”

Colliss says competition is fierce in the airline catering industry, with seven companies in Canada alone.

He says the industry is also focused on sustainability.

“Certainly, from the packaging, there’s more and more of that happening with recycled products,” he said.

“We’re also deploying different technologies, at least across Canada, on things like food digesters, which will take off cuts and recycle it and put it right back into the sewers where it’s not a landfill issue for us.”

Gate Gourmet has hired chef Molly Brandt to be its executive chef of culinary innovation for North America. She’s been with the company for three years and had no prior airline experience but has worked for cruise lines and Michelin star restaurants.

“I think working with airline catering is a massive challenge, in many ways a little bit more challenging than working in a fine dining restaurant,” she said.

“My entire goal here is to move that needle in airline catering, and my favorite (feedback) is when I hear nothing, they’re just enjoying the dish, and that is a beautiful,beautiful silence to me.”

Brandt is also conscious of how taste buds change at 11,000 metres while flying to a destination.

“It turns out that in the air, we’re losing about 30 per cent of our taste buds when it comes to salinity,” she said. “So that’s why tomato juice and Bloody Marys tastes so great in the air, so we try and think about that when we’re when we’re creating dishes.”

Brandt has to work with specific limitations when creating a meal because it has to fit inside a cart that is subject to being bumped around while transported into the airplane, and the plate can’t be more than five centimetres high.

“I like to think of the dish as a whole, and make sure that we have a balanced flavor profile, so that there’s acid, there’s sour, there’s sweet and there’s salty, so that we are having a whole round flavor – as opposed to something that is just punched up with salt.”

Corey Chow heads the Calgary operation as general manager and says staff have specific timelines to follow for their airline clients.

“We have 24 hours to plate it, once it’s plated we have another 24 hours to get out the door, so everything has to follow a sequence, and once everything’s done and ready to go, we’ll measure the temperature to make sure it’s within range, and then it goes straight to the truck.”

Chow says it can take the truck almost 45 minutes get the food to the airplane, so the food is as fresh as it can be for travellers.

“We cook it, the temperature is cooled down,” he said. “So it’s not really like the restaurant style that everybody’s expecting ‘I can get on the plane and expect this gourmet meal,’ but we will make it as gourmet as possible within our limitation.

“Every chef I hire, I ask ‘do you make leftovers taste good?’ and if the answer is yes, they pass the first step.”

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