If you need one golden strategy for ordering your in-flight meal, it's this: always order the stew.
If the stew's not available, go for fried rice and fatty fish. Pasta, noodles, chicken breast or anything deep-fried does not fare so well in the harsh conditions of the aircraft galley.
These recommendations come straight from the people tasked with making the millions of meals served in-flight every day, such as Fritz Gross, director of culinary excellence at LSG Sky Chefs Asia Pacific.
As the guy in charge of LSG Sky Chefs' Hong Kong operation, which churns out 30,000 meals daily for airlines such as DragonAir, United Airlines and British Airways, Gross' challenge is a tough one: serve hundreds of people quality meals, but do so with no knives, no crème brûlée blow torches (or indeed any fancy equipment) and with no fresh ingredients at the point of service.
The result -- Gross' kitchen is run more like a factory than a restaurant, and his biggest worry has nothing to do with how good the food tastes.
Taste not top priority
"Our top concern is actually food safety," says Gross. "Because we do such a large volume, we cannot afford to have things in there that are not right. You can imagine how easily an airline can get sued."
So medium-rare steaks are out. Fish and chicken must be cooked to the right temperature. "We just can't have any risk," says Gross.
That's why trendy cooking methods like sous vide may result in a perfectly textured fillet, but won't cut it for airline safety standards. After ensuring the food won't make people sick, Gross' next priority is consistency.
"If I pull out a tray at a random point and the food tastes right, then a few weeks later I pull out another tray and if it tastes the same, then I am happy," he says.
Menus are often planned up to a year ahead of their rollout, meaning ingredients must be sourced well ahead of time and are constantly re-evaluated. If certain ingredients turn out to be health and safety risks, the menu is changed.
"We are not a restaurant -- we can't go to the market in the morning and pick what's fresh and make it the special of the day," Gross adds.
It won't hit the spot
So if you're hoping to be surprised with lamb and fennel dumplings, or mom's killer recipe for sea cucumber and pork belly stew, you may be disappointed.
"One cannot be exotic," says Jorg Kubisz, executive chef at Cathay Pacific Catering Services, which makes Cathay's in-flight meals and also caters for other airlines such as Korean Air and All Nippon Airways."We have to find food items that are commonly accepted because of the limited choice. So maybe not sea cucumbers."
Food in economy class in particular must be instantly recognizable. This means going for middle-of-the-line comfort food that may not satiate your particular cravings, but won't offend anyone either.
"The last thing we want is for a passenger to ask 'what is that?'" says chef Kubisz. "It will hold up the service time. We need to serve a lot of people very quickly."
Cathay Pacific has a particularly hard task when it comes to pleasing everyone. It serves arguably the world's pickiest and most diverse eaters.
"Cathay is complex because we need to address halal food for people from the Middle East, Japanese eats, Korean food, local Chinese food, and make it all as authentic as possible," says manager of catering services Charles Grossrieder.
"Australian or American passengers are much easier to please. The last three generations of Americans have pretty much grown up on junk food and anything better than a Big Mac makes them go 'wow.'"
Cooking is not the problem
And all that is just the start of the challenge. While the fundamental formula of airline food is simple -- cook, chill, reheat -- its serving can be problematic.
"The cabin crew may turn on the ovens, then turbulence happens," says Gross. "You can imagine what happens to the food."
Meals may be forced to sit in the ovens for too long and dry out. And revolutionizing the galleys doesn't seem to be in our future. It would be massively expensive and complicated.
"Galleys in the aircrafts are going to become more restrictive," says Grossrieder. "It used to be that you buy the aircraft and choose the galley separately. Now the galley will come already installed. It is a bit more challenging."
Still, in an era when food chemistry knowledge is widespread through reality television shows on Food Network, isn't there a way to prep food so it reheats well?
"We have no limits," says Gross of his kitchen. "But the airlines and unions have their own rules and standards. "For example, we designed a molten chocolate cake that reheats very nicely, but the airline just said 'we don't have hot desserts on this airline.' This limits us to do certain things."
Always order the stew
All this means the one food that stands up consistently to the multiple challenges of air catering and still manages to be tasty is a stew.
"We can simmer it and reheat it over and over and it will still be a stew," says Gross.
If it is done right, the vegetables can even retain their texture. Fried rice and a good fatty fish also retain their moisture well and stand up to reheating. Pasta can be a risky choice as it needs to be al dente to taste right.
The ratio of pasta and sauce needs to be in balance so the noodles are not too wet or dry. And certain things like deep-fried items and chicken breast do not reheat well in the small, cramped casserole dishes.
However, Gross does recommend LSG Sky Chef's sweet-and-sour pork, a dish that is deep-fried, but vacuum marinated, locking flavor deep into each piece of meat, and coated in a special cornstarch batter that remains crunchy when reheated.
So next time you fly and think the mashed potato is mush and the salmon steak is a bit dry, consider what it's taken to get it to you.