The best spot in the house had been reserved; a quiet corner at the front with a skyline view. Belinda showed me to my seat. 'Can I offer you a drink, Miss Herd?' 'A glass of champagne, please.' 'Is Dom Perignon OK?' 'That will be fine.' I looked forward to my meal. Eating alone with a good book to read, glancing at fellow diners, eavesdropping on their conversations and nosing at their food, is a favourite pastime. Belinda filled a cut-glass flute with chilled Dom Perignon 1985 and presented a small dish of crunchy mixed nuts. I flicked through the menu, picking out the cashews. Should I indulge in the Beluga caviar or Moreton Bay cray with olive tapanade, chargrilled peppers, zucchini and oven-dried roma tomato? The garden salad prepared at my table with balsamic vinaigrette would freshen my palate before soup - kumara and leek soup scented with Australian herbs was my choice. Before I could begin to look at the five main courses, drool over the cheese selection or fantasise about pudding, I was interrupted. 'Welcome on board Ansett Australia flight 887 to Hong Kong.' I may have been sitting on an aeroplane but on this gastronomic flight I wasn't expecting the cardboard-cutout cuisine that has long been the mainstay - and curse - of airline catering. When Australia's domestic airline, Ansett, went international two years ago the management, in a bid to outclass its rivals, decided to concentrate its efforts on providing food that was 'first class' all the way. On each international flight a fully-trained sky chef works in the galley, preparing first and business-class meals and overseeing the catering in economy. Each of Ansett's 35 chefs is fully qualified, having spent at least two years in a five-star kitchen. My chef for the 81/2-hour flight from Sydney was Andrew Campen, 30, who has been cooking in the skies for eight months after working in hotels in Europe, South Africa and Australia. 'I didn't apply because of the travel. I wanted to develop different skills,' explained Campen, who, like all sky chefs, underwent seven weeks' training as a flight attendant. 'The demands are quite different. You can't pop to a shop if you run out of milk. If someone asks you for a steak sandwich and it's not on the menu you really have to improvise. And we have to meet our guests; that's rare in a hotel kitchen.' It's hard to imagine what the galley will look like: safety regulations preclude a naked cooking flame, but maybe there is a microwave. In fact, all food comes on board lightly pre-cooked and chilled. The galley is the same size as any 747's and the only 'cooking' facilities are shallow ovens that are little more than warming trays. The chef's job is to re-heat or 'cook' the meals and present them with style. To maintain standards, Campen is on the plane checking supplies an hour before take-off; if anything is below standard he will not allow it on. 'There is only so much you can do with lobster, for example, if it comes on the plane overcooked. I have to consider that I don't want to let the guests down. They will see it on the menu and order it, but it's better to apologise and say we don't have it than offer it badly cooked.' Indeed, shortly after take-off Campen, in full chef's gear, visits each first-class guest. 'I only have a limited quantity of each dish so I have to draw on my social skills to suggest guests choose something else if I know we will be running low.' The guest's 'table' is set with white linen cloth, individual china salt and pepper shakers, elegant silver cutlery, cut-glass wine goblets and the meal served on Ansett's elegant blue and gold Noritake china. Belinda folded a white linen napkin and swished it across my lap before offering me six choices of warm bread, including corn, garlic and walnut. But should I have the caviar or Moreton Bay Cray? 'Why don't you have both, Miss Herd,' suggested Campen. The caviar, hidden under a miniature cloche, was tantalisingly tangy and was swished down with a chilled Russian vodka; the cray was succulent. The salad, which was fresh and crisp, was tossed in a beautifully sweet and sour dressing. But surely Campen would not be able to serve up the Australian grain-fed beef tenderloin with brandied goose liver parfait and mushrooms with Hunter Valley red wine jus under a puff pastry crust as it should be? 'Can you guarantee the beef won't cut like leather and the pastry taste like cardboard?' I probed. 'I promise,' replied Campen. As good as his word, the pastry was light and crisp; the beef cut like butter. For cheese, I chose aged strong farmhouse cheddar and buttery triple-cream camembert, which was served with tasty crisp poppy-seed and sesame biscuits and the silky bread and butter pudding splashed with Dom Perignon made me want to ask for the recipe. The service has received numerous awards but the best accolade is the response from 'guests'. I spoke to five businessmen, all from Melbourne, travelling in first class. Each went out of his way to fly to Sydney to pick up Ansett's connection to Hong Kong. Robert Sherr, a clothing manufacturer, said: 'For service and food, Qantas and Cathay Pacific don't come close. I fly Ansett whenever I can.' Cathay Pacific's catering services manager Adrian Ort concedes the service style is very different. 'We take the more traditional approach. We serve pre-plated meals from the trolley and people choose what they want. We feel the passengers like to see what they are getting.' The food is not dissimilar. Lunch starts with savouries and cocktails, then caviar, followed by a soup and salad service. There is a choice of four main courses. That is followed by port and cheese and dessert. 'We are looking at first class with a view to making it more exclusive, but I cannot reveal how yet,' adds Ort. Tony Crossin, the Qantas food and beverage product manager, admitted the presentation was better on Ansett. 'But we have done product comparisons and found there are no main elements missing from Qantas,' he said. 'We have a duty air chef but it's a cabin crew person who operates from the galley. They have had training in food presentation but they are not chefs trained in five-star restaurants. 'What we are looking at is the total experience. People don't always buy tickets because of the food. We realise that the competitive situation is growing and we are now starting to develop some new enhancements which will be put into place in the next 12 months.' Qantas also offers a trolley service with similar choices. 'If you match them side by side there is not much difference. We like to think we are using the highest quality fresh products. We try to achieve balance, accommodating Western and Asian customers, and try to make sure we have the right balance in the menu: light or heavy food, comfort food and leading-edge.' On my flight, a snooze was in order before afternoon tea: a selection of snacks including king prawns with ginger and sesame, mud crab nori roulade and grilled calmari and salad, fruit and pumpkin scones and refreshing tea.