The Hong Kong five-star hotel chefs creating menus for long-haul flights

Slow-cooked pork cheek, steamed minced pork patties and braised short ribs: The Langham, Grand Hyatt and Conrad create Chinese and Mediterranean dishes to be served at 9,000 metres

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 5:31am

When Cathay Pacific was planning to launch Hong Kong-Madrid flights in June this year, the Langham Hong Kong jumped at the opportunity to have its executive chef, Pedro Samper, design the menu for the airline’s business class passengers.

The San Sebastian native was thrilled to showcase his country’s cuisine on the airline that had never before had a focus on serving Spanish food.

“For the menu I chose slow-cooked dishes for longevity and taste. I wanted to use real Spanish products, and traditionally inspired recipes that people can recognise easily. I didn’t want to lose the quality and colour,” he says.

One of the dishes is Iberico pork cheek, cooked according to a recipe by Samper’s grandmother. The pork cheek is first sautéed, then placed in a casserole with carrots, onion and garlic, before adding Spanish brandy and tempranillo wine along with rosemary and thyme.

The ingredients are cooked slowly to gradually reduce the wine before adding pork stock. The dish is served with potato purée and thinly sliced black truffle.

Other items on the Spanish-themed menu are gazpacho, salad with Iberico ham and roasted vegetables, cod with green sauce, green beans and clams, and chicken slow-cooked with compote.

“Spanish food is rich in flavour so we’re trying to concentrate the flavours, and add more sauce so it doesn’t dry out when it’s served on the flight,” says Samper.

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Going to Cathay City to see how the food is prepared was an eye-opening experience for Samper, he says. “They have an amazing team and they quickly understand the recipes and only made a few adjustments. For me it’s important that the dishes are colourful and have aroma and flavour.”

Airline food is often stigmatised as bland, but things are changing. Aaron Claxton, Cathay Pacific’s head of catering, says there are many factors to consider.

“Dining in the air is complex, with limited space available and very stringent hygiene restrictions,” he says. “The process to reheat meals in-flight also limits the variety of foods which are deemed suitable to undergo this process – an example being fried foods which tend to become soft and greasy. Some ingredients are also more stable than others and this tends to make Western foods easier to produce than Asian dishes.”

On a recent Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, one of the dinner options for economy class was a small round patty of steamed minced pork with mushroom, cuttlefish and water chestnut, served with broccoli and steamed jasmine rice.

It’s a homestyle dish that was designed by Grand Hyatt Hong Kong Chinese executive chef Li Shu-tim from One Harbour Road restaurant. It is one of several dishes from the Wan Chai hotel, which, along with five Park Hyatt hotels in New York, Chicago, Milan, Toronto and Zurich, are concentrating on the airline’s catering, in an agreement that was announced in June.

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Andreas Stalder, senior vice-president of food and beverage operations and product development in Asia-Pacific for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, says that Li specifically chose comfort foods for the menu.

“When he goes home, he likes to have minced pork with cuttlefish steamed on top of rice. It’s homestyle and Hong Kong people love it. We had to bump up the seasoning by 10 per cent for flavour. The effect of eating at higher altitudes is a science [in itself].”

Claxton says this is because the cabin pressure, when flying at altitude, is known to dull our taste buds and as such, foods need more seasoning than would normally be used on the ground, with more prominent herbs and spices.

“Some food groups are much better for in-flight dining, such as tomatoes, which are rich in umami, whereas those with more subtle flavours often fare less well in the air,” says Claxton.

“Foods that are cooked in their own sauces – stews, curries, casseroles, etcetera – all are also great since the sauce, being a liquid form of seasoning, keeps the ingredients and flavours locked in and the dish retains its moisture.”

Chefs at the Conrad, a brand under Hilton’s portfolio, have also learned about what’s best to serve in in-flight meals for All Nippon Airways (ANA). The two companies collaborated this year to mark the 25th anniversary of flights on ANA’s Tokyo-New York route with a special menu.

Executive chef Antonio Cardoso of Conrad New York’s signature restaurant Atrio, which serves Mediterranean-style cuisine, was chosen to create the in-flight menu for business class passengers.

“Food and drink taste different in the air because of the lack of humidity and air pressure,” explains Sarah Somerville, senior director of loyalty, partnerships and brand marketing for Asia-Pacific at Hilton. “Chef Antonio needed to consider how our taste buds are affected. We also had to think about how the dish was presented and keep the reheating process in mind.”

Some raw fruits and vegetables, such as fresh grapes, sprouts, micro greens and fresh coriander, couldn’t be used as garnishes due to the potential contamination risks, but Koji Oka, vice-president of products and services strategy for ANA, says the Conrad chefs were very creative in trying to incorporate some Japanese ingredients into their dishes.

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The end result were menu items such as young corn and red-wine-braised short rib, and roasted branzino fillet served with ratatouille vegetables and tomato saffron sauce. Passengers in business class could drink a special cocktail called Conrad Gin Rickey, that incorporated ANA’s signature kabosu lime juice.

“We had very positive feedback. Passengers were surprised and delighted to have food from Atrio on a long, tiring flight,” Somerville says. The Hilton is also in the midst of a three-year collaboration to cater to ANA’s airline lounges in order to raise its food and beverage standards worldwide.

“The principle of the dish [on the flight] is that it’s comfort food. These days no one expects fancy food. They want to be happy and satisfied with simplicity,” says Stalder.

He also says the opportunity to showcase the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong’s Chinese and Italian dishes helps to expose travellers to the Hyatt brand and that “maybe this will entice them to try the real deal” when they’re visiting the city.

He adds: “Hyatt is proud of its reputation in food and beverage. We have people stay at our hotels and we want to make it a continuous experience from plane to hotel. It’s an opportunity to tell the rest of the world.”