Catering to Fliers’ Tastes at 30,000 Feet
William Gillen, 53, is the director of culinary excellence for the North America region of LSG Sky Chefs, based in Irving, Tex.
Your company is a subsidiary of Lufthansa and prepares in-flight meals for some 300 airlines. What’s the scope of operations in the region you handle?
In North America, we have about 40 customer service centers located in or near airports, where our teams do all the cooking and prepping from scratch. Then we transfer plated dishes to planes via trolleys.
What is your role?
I manage 13 chefs in Irving, Tex., part of our more than 500 employees throughout North America. I oversee the design and development of recipes and liaison between our airline customers and these chefs. My goal is to ensure each airline customer gets quality food service with individual touches that mirror its own brand identity.
How do you design recipes and menus?
A lead chef works out the recipes according to the airline’s needs in conjunction with our international chef colleagues. After four days of prepping, we invite the customer’s team to a presentation in our Irving kitchens. We do a walk-through explaining every dish; then they taste. Some airlines even bring flight attendants, who will be the ones to handle the food on board. If the customer wants to adjust the flavor profile, we immediately make the adjustment in our test kitchen and represent the revised menu item right after.
Why does food served on a plane taste different from that eaten on the ground?
The dry cabin environment and the lower air pressure flying at altitudes of 30,000 feet contribute to that; some 30 percent of the palate is affected on a plane. We lose our sense of smell, which influences 80 percent of taste. Salt and sweetness are the most affected of the five basic tastes, which also include sour, bitter and umami.
Given these challenges, which dishes do you particularly recommend and which not so much?
Braised short ribs, lamb shank and osso buco are slow-cooked meats that retain their moisture very well. Filet mignon is a cut that does not have much fat, so it’s not going to be as tender. I’d suggest instead ordering a classic beef Wellington; when wrapped in puff pastry or phyllo dough, it will hold the moisture but stay crusty brown on the outside. Chicken and other curries or types of stews are also tasty options.
What techniques do you use to help maintain the taste integrity of the food?
Fish is one food especially vulnerable to dryness. To preserve its moistness, we sear the fish and quickly wrap it in blanched cabbage leaf. When it’s reheated on the plane, the fish steams in the leaf and comes out very moist. Another tactic is an adaptation on the classic European cooking technique called en papillote in French and al cartoccio in Italian: We bake seafood and poultry in parchment paper to keep it moist. You can also use a paper bag or aluminum foil.
How much time do you yourself spend actually cooking?
Though I am a 1996 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked at several stand-alone restaurants and chains even before that, I don’t get the opportunity to cook in this job as much as I would like.
But at home I am a passionate cook. My wife, Grace, gets to be the taster. She doesn’t seem to mind I turned our home kitchen into a professional-level production setting with double ovens and an oversize refrigerator.