From Farm to Tray Table

As passengers return to air travel, airlines look to highlight local flavors and ingredients, broadening their in-flight meals.

As consumers are thinking more about where their food comes from, some airlines are looking to refocus their menus on local ingredients.
Photography by Aureliy/Shutterstock

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your chef speaking. 

There’s a beef pot roast with wasabi sour cream or a chicken shisomboca with orzo and a soy yuzu jus. For dessert, there’s a chocolate haupia crunch cake. And while you wait, there’s the beloved pau hana snack mix with roasted almonds, rice crackers and flax chips. 

This menu is a blend of Hawaiian flavors and global classics, designed to showcase Hawaii in an exclusive setting while appealing to a broad range of tastes. It is, of course, just one of the menus that Hawaiian Airlines is currently offering to customers flying from the mainland United States to Hawaii. 

Now, as parts of the world begin to open back up from COVID-19-induced shutdowns, airlines are starting to bring passengers back on board, and chefs such as Wade Ueoka are creating new menus to welcome them back.

One major focus for some airlines, as they try to entice travellers back onto their airplanes, has been local food, which can be a bit confusing for an airline with hubs and flights around the world. For Air Canada, local means looking to sustainably source ingredients from across Canada for its international flights. 

“It’s always nice to add a local flair. It could be cheese from Quebec or salmon from the pacific coast,” says Andrianna Pischos, manager of catering product design with the airline. “Pre-pandemic, depending on the flight, there could have been thousands if not millions of meals. So, we look at what can be sustained from a supply chain perspective.”

For Ueoka, who is the executive chef of Hawaiian Airlines, that means showing passengers the “flavors and basically comfort foods that I grew up eating.” Because Hawaiian cuisine is a mix of many traditions and cooking techniques, Ueoka says he tries to incorporate that blend into every menu he makes. That’s why you might see Hawaiian meals like pork lau lau or ingredients like taro, pineapple or macadamia nuts when you pull down your tray table on a Hawaiian Airlines flight. 

While the menus are refreshed regularly, there is a new aim among some airlines of working with local producers, which means weather patterns can occasionally cause issues, Pischos says. It can also be difficult when producing items at the scale these airlines do, cooking in warehouse kitchens, creating thousands of portions at a time.

Ultimately though, she says the concentration on local ingredients and menus is something customers want. The push for bright, tasty and unique in-flight options is, in part, a backlash from notoriously bad airline food (and the accompanying jokes) a decade or two ago. But as  travellers are looking to fly after more than a year of being grounded, there’s a renewed push from airlines to focus on their food quality as one way to convince passengers to fly. And as consumers have become more invested in where their food comes from, airlines have moved to catch up. Why not bake with local grains or work with local cheese producers to get ingredients that showcase your destination, especially if it gets people excited to tuck into a meal on your flight? 

“At our international stations, [we ask] what’s a typical meal that you would see out of Brussels or that you would see out of Hong Kong? What would you want to eat with your family or your friends?” Pischos says. “It could be either at the ingredient level or the recipe inspiration itself can be more local.”

Pischos says that Air Canada does have plans to launch new food “enhancements” later this summer, likely when it will expect a wave of newly vaccinated passengers. The airline has already started trialing new bistro options on some flights, allowing passengers to purchase new food items on board. 

As COVID-19 continues to flare in other regions of the world, some airlines are pulling back menu options for now, instead looking to a future of new menus. Qantas, Australia’s flagship airline, says it doesn’t expect to return to long-haul flights until October. Before the pandemic, the airline worked with chef Neil Perry for more than 20 years, serving up items such as grilled salmon with squid-ink noodles and its signature steak sandwich with tomato relish. Representatives from Qantas say they’re continuing to work with Perry, with a spotlight on seasonal ingredients, although it’s too early to say what their new menus might look like once flights resume.

“Everyone has different comfort levels, and some people are OK with more interaction or less interaction,” says Pischos. “It’s [finding] that sweet spot that works for most people and making sure, most importantly, that the customer feels safe and comfortable and that they enjoy their experience.”

For some passengers, that enjoyment just might be heightened knowing that the warm pineapple cake they’re eating was prepared right in Honolulu by the Hawaiian Pie Company. The renewed focus on fresh ingredients and local flavors might just help air travel take off again. 

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