A RULE of thumb for airline catering is that if one airline uses a premium ingredient, more are likely to follow. It is a competitive world where a well-received menu item will often see a rival carrier up the ante.
Wagyu for First and Business Class is one such premium ingredient with US-based American Airlines, which has introduced Wagyu burgers and Wagyu shortribs to its in-flight menu.
Gate Gourmet, one of the world’s largest airline catering companies, has worked with a range of airlines to create Australian Wagyu dishes.
Jeremy Steele, Asia Pacific regional executive chef with Gate Gourmet, said that adding Wagyu to a menu added prestige and increased opportunity for public relations.
“The power of the word ‘Wagyu’ on the menu gives passengers high expectations,” he said. “Everyone knows that Wagyu is a premium product and its presence on the menu takes an airline to the next level. It adds the ‘wow’ factor so that First and Business Class passengers feel like they are getting something special.”
The flip side to serving Wagyu as an airline premium menu item is the need to ensure that it is presented with care and respect.
Collaborating with airlines to develop a menu is vital to ensure that it meets passenger expectations in terms of presentation and flavour. It also needs to be easily assembled by crew prior to serving and maintain the product’s integrity during the re-heating stage once onboard.
Choosing the right cut and marbling level is an important aspect of the final dish decision and Mr Steele and his team recently worked with Meat & Livestock Australia to better understand Australian Wagyu.
Late last year, Australian Wagyu Association chief executive Dr Matt McDonagh took some crossbred Wagyu forequarter cuts to MLA corporate chef Sam Burke, and butcher Doug Piper. The team assessed the eating quality across a range of cuts and cooking methods typically used in food service applications, like airlines.
“The product offered great value for both retail and foodservice – the amount of marbling these cuts displayed offer consumers a great introduction to Wagyu beef, rating highly on tenderness, juiciness and flavour and had the richness of a high marble-score product,” Mr Piper said.
“Wagyu is an ideal red meat to work with, given the fat content and marbling, which gives moisture and flavour to the dish. Secondary cuts such as brisket and short ribs are very forgiving, as it reheats extremely well. For executive catering on charter flights, we can use cuts such as sirloin and eye fillet – for these flights we can use the very best,” Mr Steele said.
Gate Gourmet chefs are given cooking guides for Wagyu steak – bringing it to room temperature, grilling on a hot plate to seal on all sides, before chilling on a silicon tray. The steaks are then transferred to a pack suitable for the airline. Re-heating instructions are also specific – 19 minutes plus rest for medium rare through to 30 minutes plus rest for medium to well done.
In addition, passengers sense of taste for savoury decreases by 30pc at cruising altitude, so often extra seasoning is added along with ingredients such as mushrooms, miso and parmesan, to give an extra level of umami.
The ingredients of each meal need to be carefully assessed, as a meal option may stay on the menu for three months, meaning that the ingredient needs to be readily accessible across the seasons as well as the ports for that flight route. For example, a fruit readily available in Cairns needs to be accessible in Sydney, Auckland and Los Angeles that make up the flight route.
Once the decision on a cut and cooking style is made, Gate Gourmet undertakes an in-depth process of menu development to ensure the right level of taste, and train crew on presentation according to the airline’s specification. The presentation training and instructions are a vital part of the final meal, as a poorly-presented meal reflects badly on the airline.
“Through the Asia Pacific region, Gate Gourmet services 79 airlines. Menus can vary weekly, some are available all year. Meals can be pre-plated, meaning the crew just need to remove the foil to serve, or with some first-class passengers, the meal can be served on demand,” Mr Steele said.
The operations cater for up to 32 different dietary requirements – everything from diabetic to low sodium.
“Our challenge is to be innovative, creative and cost-effective. A successful meal can often become a signature dish and stay on the menu for longer than the original menu cycle, such as the Wagyu Burger. It is a great reflection on Wagyu for its versatility and eating experience,” he said.