Food with altitude

Enjoying fine food on a business jet requires a delicate balance of art, science and technology. Words: Mike Stones

Chef and food entrepreneur Daniel Hulme draws inspiration from Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

Food with altitude

Enjoying fine food on a business jet requires a delicate balance of art, science and technology. Words: Mike Stones

Chef and food entrepreneur Daniel Hulme draws inspiration from Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

FINE DINING ON a business jet presents special challenges. But who would have thought Nineteenth Century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí could offer Twenty-first Century solutions?

One leading chef and fine food entrepreneur who answers an emphatic ‘Si’ is On Air Dining CEO Daniel Hulme. By an odd quirk of synchronicity, Hulme speaks to me via Zoom while standing beside Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Basilica of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, Spain.

“Gaudí understood there are no straight lines in nature,” says Hulme. “That’s an important lesson for preparing top quality food on a business jet.”

Airborne diners face a series of challenges linked to cabin pressure, noise and, often, dry atmosphere. The result is impaired taste and smell but not vision. “You eat with your eyes even more on an aircraft because when one sense is taken away, your other senses are heighted,” he explains. “When your flavour is dulled down and the white noise of the aircraft is affecting your ears, your eyes become sharper.”

Here’s where Gaudí helps. Framing food on a dish and abhorring straight lines can improve its taste. “When we design a dish, we make sure there are different colours and textures. Height and three-dimensional shape are also really important for airborne dining.” A key aim is to focus the diners’ eyes on the centre of the plate without the distraction of cluttered peripheral vision. “When we are building beautiful dishes, to make the eyes work, you need to move away from straight lines,” says Hulme.

“When you look at a Gaudí building, the reason you can’t help but stare is because he has emulated nature. It’s like looking at a beautiful tree or a garden of flowers.”

Gaudí’s flying buttresses inspired On Air Dining’s fine food.

Miso cod makes its mark at 40,000ft

Sous vide cod, still wearing its caramelised skin, floats on a miso broth of leeks, pak choi, shiitake mushrooms and pink ginger. The caramelisation of fish and vegetables, draw out the fifth flavour: umami, which boosts the taste of airborne meals. The stacked ingredients, reflecting the architecture of Gaudi, are designed to excite the eye at altitude, when other senses can be impaired.

‘It is all about the umami’

Plating up to serve on a plane. Line-caught sea bass, again with a caramelised skin, nestles alongside roast cauliflower puree with crunchy polenta chips and a sauce vierge – all packed with umami. Shallots, lemon zest, chives, parsley and tarragon complete the palate of flavours. The skilled framing food on a plate improves its taste on a plane.

But there is more to producing memorable meals on a jet than simply the structure and colours of food. Of course, sourcing the very finest and freshest of ingredients is key. But airborne caterers have a secret ingredient in their cupboard and its name is umami; the fifth flavour. “I’ve been teaching for 10 years in presentations at EBACE that you lose about 50% of your taste buds in an aircraft,” says Hulme. “Most affected is the sense of salt. Minerals involved in the make-up of salt is what enhances flavour in food. You lose that on an aircraft.”

Professor Barry Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy, London University, takes up the story by dissecting the impact of altitude on smell and taste. “The sense of smell is radically altered because of the dry air in the mucus membrane that activates the receptors from the volatile compounds. At low pressure, you have greater dispensation of the molecules, so not as many volatiles are reaching the nose as in a higher pressure environment.”

Turning to noise, Smith references his research with Charles Spence, experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, about how white noise at 89 decibels or above disrupts taste. “With the ambient noise of a jet engine you get perceptual interference from your auditory input as to how your brain perceives taste. Perception of salt, sweet and sour [tastes] is reduced by about 10-15% by the interference factor of noise,” says Smith.

“What we call flavour is generated by smell and taste combining together as recognisable flavours in food and wines. So, that means in an aircraft cabin you have an environment where both smell and taste – crucial factors in perceiving food and drink – are compromised reducing what they can deliver in this environment.”

Business jet cabins are significantly quieter and have lower pressure than those of commercial airliners. Nevertheless, even business jet passengers relaxing in a super mid-size jet with a cabin pressure equivalent to 4,500 ft while cruising at 45,000 ft experience some loss of taste.

“Perception of salt, sweet and sour is reduced by about 10-15% …”

Just desserts round off the meal

Strawberry cheesecake offers the perfect way to round of a meal served at altitude. The presentation of the dish seduces the eye, with the round cheese cake and the flowing accompaniment – testimony to Antoni Gaudí’s wisdom: There are no straight lines in nature. Another bearer of umami, the sweetness of the strawberries cuts through the palate, according to Daniel Hulme.

Hulme, from On Air Dining, explains how umami can help to counter that loss of flavour. “An aircraft is one of the harshest environments to eat because of the dryness in your nostrils and mouth. For more than 10 years, I’ve looked at how to incorporate moisture and flavour into dishes. This is where umami comes in. It doesn’t have to be savoury. The greatest examples are soy sauce, seaweed, shiitake mushrooms but there’s also umami in chocolate, tomato and pineapple.”

Umami is so important he tries to incorporate it into every dish because it “fires up the saliva gland”, which generates saliva in the back of the throat. “So, there is a double factor within umami which makes it so important within cuisine in an aircraft.” One useful technique is to extract the essence of items such a dehydrated pineapple, shiitake mushrooms and seaweed and incorporate it into sauces or jus for beef and lamb. “You can’t detect it directly but when you taste the dish, your mouth explodes with flavour because of the umami and the moisture content.”

Hulme thinks private jet diners are realistic about the reduction in flavour from meals served at 10,000ft compared with ground level. But that is no reason to avoid striving for perfection on a plate – at whatever height it is served.

“Umami is a fantastic thing to put in meals in the air.”

Lights, camera, action in the theatre of food. On Air Dining stages a master class in food presentation. Framing food on a plate is even more important for meals served at altitude.

Food presentation is critical, as business jet passengers eat with their eyes.

While food preparation and service remain an art, science can help and so can technology. “I’ve talked to flight attendants who report some private jets, such as the G650 and Global 7000, actively pump moisture into the atmosphere on board the aircraft and there’s also a lower cabin pressurisation. Does that make food taste better? I’m told it does.” But the quality of on-board ovens has much room for improvement, he adds.

Hulme believes the campaign against tasteless airborne food has gained traction with the airlines over the past five years – partly thanks to the work of science-based celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. “The airlines now understand if you want people to taste things, you need punch in sauces for tagines, curries and spicy arrabiata pasta sauces. Otherwise, it all tastes bland.”

Smith agrees on introducing umami to airborne meals. “Umami is a fantastic thing to put into meals that you serve in the air. It boosts the other basic tastes, so it enhances perceptions of saltiness, sweetness and sourness by emphasising and amplifying them.” The popularity of Blood Marys – made with umami-rich tomatoes – is no accident, he adds.

He also makes the case for synergistic umami, based on the two types found in glutamates – such as tomatoes, cheeses and mushrooms – and peptides, found in meat, beef, lamb and chicken. This synergy lies behind famous food pairings such as ham and cheese and scallops and pea puree. “The way we describe this in flavour circles is: one and one equals eight. It delivers an incredible boost of flavour,” said Smith.

Claudia Martiradonna, business development manager, DeliSky, highlights service aboard private jets. “The expectation when flying on a private jet will change based on the company the client decided to fly with,” says Martiradonna. “Crew are generally qualified in food safety and will also have received a plating tutorial from expert chefs and extensive experience in food preparation and service. This will generally make the meal taste like it came straight out of the kitchen.” Also serving food and wine in the most prestigious glassware, ceramic or silver will bring that additional sensation to complete passengers’ expectation.

Martiradonna acknowledges the challenges of preserving the perceptions of food and wine at altitude. “In general, strong and bold flavours are the best options. Selecting the right dish is essential to provide the higher satisfaction, so choosing food for example with the element of crunch, such as grain-based options or salad, will usually succeed.”

So, time for the killer question: Can dining on a private jet ever taste as good as in a Michelin-starred restaurant? “Fine dining at altitude is not a lost cause – it can be done,” says Smith. “But you have to know your onions – or rather tomatoes [for umami] – particularly your combination of tomatoes and meats.”

Hulme’s response is carefully considered: “On Air Dining has a product that is almost as good as dining on the ground. And our fine dining product produces exceptional dishes on board that are as good as any fine dining restaurant.”

So, art, science and technology have combined to deliver top quality food on a business jet – with a little help from Gaudí.

CJI Connect

Daniel Hulme

CEO, On Air Dining

+44 20 3693 3888

[email protected]

Professor Barry Smith

Director of the Institute of Philosophy, London University

+44 20 7862 8682

[email protected]

Claudia Martiradonna

Business development manager

DeliSky GmbH

+41 44 586 3110

[email protected]

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group editor, Corporate Jet Investor