Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

In-flight fine dining: Is it really possible?

By Zoe Li, for CNN
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 0350 GMT (1150 HKT)
Airlines are teaming up with world-class chefs, trying to make in-flight fine-dining a reality.
Airlines are teaming up with world-class chefs, trying to make in-flight fine-dining a reality.
HIDE CAPTION
Quest to make in-flight dining pleasurable
Cathay Pacific teams with Michelin-starred chef
Tough ask
In-flight vs on the ground
Lofty inspiration
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Can fine-dining experiences really be pulled off at 30,000 feet? Some airlines think so.
  • Cathay Pacific partners with Pino Lavarra from Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant Tosca
  • Some recipes have to be tweaked to meet food safety regulations

(CNN) -- More and more airlines are teaming up with world-class chefs, hoping to solve that ultimate #firstworldproblem: how to serve a top-rate meal in the air.

The strategy seems to be to throw glamorous, big-name chefs at the problem and hope that they can recreate on planes that same gastronomic magic they do at their restaurants.

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal helped British Airways with a special Olympic in-flight menu in 2012; Joel Robuchon and Air France have made headlines with their collaboration, which began in 2011.

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong has also been tasked with creating a first-class menu for Cathay Pacific.

Their Italian restaurant, Tosca, is famous for creative Italian cooking and recently received one Michelin star after Pino Lavarra took over as executive chef.

Lavarra was asked to whip up a gourmet menu that will work at 30,000 feet above sea level.

He went one step further: Lavarra is serving the same in-flight meal at Tosca as a special four-course "first class menu" costing HK$1,400 ($180) per head.

Airplane food served at an expensive restaurant?

Lavarra admits it's not the easiest sell.

"I agree that in-flight food has a bad reputation. I also find most of it terrible," says the chef.

MORE: Would you choose an airline based on its menu?

Lofty ambitions

He says The Ritz-Carlton's height inspired the menu.

The hotel is nearly 500 meters (1,640 feet) above ground, earning it the superlative of "world's highest hotel," and bringing its guests close to a mid-air experience, without them getting on a plane.

The two menus -- in-flight and on the ground -- can't be exactly the same however.

Lavarra says the idea of recreating gourmet restaurant experiences in the air will only ever be a concept.

In reality, it will never be replicated.

Garganelli with n\'duja salami, bread sfritto and Senise pepper.
Garganelli with n'duja salami, bread sfritto and Senise pepper.

"The meal served on the plane, it's cooked by somebody else, it's prepared eight to 12 hours ahead of time, it's mass production," says Lavarra.

In other words, it isn't the personalized, fussy cooking of a top-notch restaurant.

But the biggest problem is an airline's concern for food safety, which trumps the customer's desire for deliciousness.

"Everything has to be pasteurized, and you can't use raw tuna or raw beef," says Lavarra.

The chef serves high-quality beef carpaccio on both his in flight and restaurant menus.

The one at the restaurant is a traditional Italian appetizer of thick slices of tender raw beef paired with ricotta and a perky tomato jam.

The same dish on the plane has to be tweaked to get around food safety regulations: the beef is seared first, so it isn't really a carpaccio anymore.

For connoisseurs, it would be the equivalent of adding water to aged whiskey.

MORE: Skip the pasta! And other unsavory truths about airplane food

Don't count on the bread

"My food costs are 45%. I have given my food supplier list to Cathay and I believe they use the exact same ingredients as I do at Tosca," says Lavarra, who has had to adjust many of the other ingredients so the dishes can withstand storage and re-heating.

One item that made the chef throw in the towel was the bread.

"It is quite tricky to make it crunchy and nice, you have to reheat it, on a flight that is basically impossible to do. The airline caterers have done a decent job considering it is baked 15 hours in advance, but it's not 'wow,'" he says.

The chef is also taking a deeper look at the overall experience for gourmets.

At the restaurant, the experience is a gradual build-up to a crescendo of a main dish. The chef would temper the first few courses so the diner is not overwhelmed.

"From start to end, you have to keep the interest of the customer," says Lavarra.

On a flight, it's a shorter meal, with Lavarra's special main course competing with other regular offerings.

The chef makes sure to dial up the flavors of his main dish, including the tastiest, most intense ingredients.

"I only have one chance to impress the customer. I have to be spot on," he says.

Cathay Pacific's partnership with Pino Lavarra and Tosca runs until July 31, 2014, on various long-haul and regional flights departing Hong Kong.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
This aging cargo work whale makes more than 60 flights each week, carrying parts for all of the Airbus programs.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
From a three-room apartment to a Michelin-starred meal, many airlines are offering services you won't even get in some top hotels.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1446 GMT (2246 HKT)
Details from an Airbus patent illustrating a virtual reality headset for air passengers.
Airbus patent proposes using special headsets to control in-flight sights, sounds and smells.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0701 GMT (1501 HKT)
Bear on the tail and heart on the underside -- it's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
The only two surviving pilots of the wartime China National Aviation Corp celebrate after an historic Douglas C-47 flight.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1236 GMT (2036 HKT)
Just because you can use your phone on the plane, it doesn't mean you have to.
September 6, 2014 -- Updated 0042 GMT (0842 HKT)
You've been up since 3 a.m.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Airlines and airports are going high-tech to reduce your time in line.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
Ever wondered what it takes to get that movie to your inflight screen? This special report details who, what and how much it takes to bring you the best in IFE (we'll explain).
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
Takeoff on one of Airbus' new A350WXB test planes is a strangely quiet experience.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 0906 GMT (1706 HKT)
Cars, craft beer, yetis? Since when did in-flight purchases get so strange?
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
CNN takes a look at the new car-plane hybrid that brings affordable recreational air travel to the masses.
ADVERTISEMENT