Lufthansa + Peninsula Hotels = Gourmet In-flight Meals
by Anne Spiselman
PHOTO: ROB FINLAYSON
Ever wonder, as you settle into first or business class for an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, why you cannot have the same kind of dinner you’d enjoy at a luxury hotel before retiring for the evening?
Well, now you can. If you fly Lufthansa to Germany from any of its 16 US gateways in November or December 2006, you’ll enjoy meals created by Gordon Maybury, executive chef of The Peninsula New York’s renowned Fives restaurant.
Chef Gordon Maybury
In first class, this means an amuse-bouche of shrimp ceviche, followed by such appetizers as five-spice dusted smoked duck breast with wild mushroom and leek salad. Entrees (main courses) include horseradish-pepper crusted beef tenderloin and vanilla-thyme roasted cod.
Vanilla-thyme roasted cod
Business class passengers can choose between smoked duck breast with sweet corn flan and pistachio-crusted shrimp with mango salsa, while grilled Atlantic salmon and lemon-rosemary crusted chicken breast are among the main courses.
And that’s not all. In an unprecedented move, Lufthansa has teamed up with the three Peninsula Hotels of North America to offer a full year of gourmet dining for passengers. For January and February 2007, Terry Crandall, executive chef of The Peninsula Chicago, has come up with dishes like grilled zucchini with prosciutto, ricotta, figs, and pine nuts and Szechwan king snapper with wok-fried rapini. March and April’s lineup, by Sean Hardy, executive chef of The Belvedere, at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, features signatures such as stuffed baby eggplant with tomato fondue, and beef tenderloin with charred chayote squash and oyster mushrooms. Desserts range from Maybury’s apple raisin bread pudding to Hardy’s yogurt panna cotta with kumquat sauce. The rotation will repeat from May through October 2007 with new menus from each of the chefs.
Lufthansa has been tapping the talents of star chefs on a regular basis since January 2000, when it launched ‘Connoisseurs on Board’ premium in-flight food and beverage service on intercontinental flights from Germany. But, before The Peninsula partnership, travellers from US gateways sampled only the specialties of the 50th star chef, Hollywood’s Joachim Splichal, from November 2005 to February 2006.
The logistical challenges of serving 16 gateways are formidable, according to Ernest Derenthal, manager menu and culinary design for LSG Sky Chefs, which operates 14 of the flight kitchens, while Flying Food Group is responsible for Newark and Chicago. “Instead of running two high-volume kitchens as in Germany, we have to prepare and provide meals at 16 lower-volume locations on the same high-quality level,” he points out. “One classic problem is the sourcing and distribution of products in small quantities for 16 ports.”
Derenthal says lack of reliable availability ruled out some ingredients, such as guinea hen, heirloom tomatoes, and pea shoots. Others were forbidden for food-safety reasons, among them fresh eggs, chicken breast with bones left in, micro greens, and tuna tartar (raw fish). A third consideration was what he calls “polarization”—something not liked in all parts of the world—which applied to poussin (Cornish Game Hen), pigeon, and garlic (allowed only in moderation).
In general, though, the chefs were given few directives. What they were given was a complete set of first and business class china, along with pictures from previous menus to help them understand the concept, style, and portion sizes. They also visited an airline catering establishment to have a better sense of the production and transport of the meals. The briefing covered subjects such as pre-production times, the cooling chain on the airplane, limitations on slicing of meat (no large carving knives are allowed onboard), and the necessity for uniformity of each meal type. They were asked to create four appetizers, four main courses, and two desserts for first class, as well as two appetizers, three main courses, and one dessert for business.
“Beyond that, we didn’t want to limit their creativity,” Derenthal says. In an unusual initiative, the chefs were invited not merely to submit recipes but also to participate in the entire development process, which involved several meetings with Lufthansa and catering personnel.
Chef Maybury says he tried out a total of about 50 dishes, providing recipes and photos that were then analyzed by Lufthansa and the caterers for cost, adherence to standards, and such factors as appearance and re-heat ability. “I realized pretty quickly that some things that fly at Fives restaurant just don’t on a ’plane,” he recalls, ticking off risotto (doesn’t heat well), foie gras, oysters (handling issues), and pork dishes (which Jews and Muslims don’t eat) as examples.
In March 2006, he submitted three amuses and nine appetizers for first class, and three appetizers for business. While he says that the recipes for the final selections were close to his, quite a few dishes were discarded. Fregola, Italian large-grain couscous with wild mushrooms served at Fives as a vegetarian option, required too many ingredients and hand movements to prepare. A hanger steak salad, popular on his lunch buffet, was too risky, because the pre-sliced beef might turn gray. Pickled salmon with roasted beets and lemon-dill crème fraîche conflicted with the smoked salmon that is part of Lufthansa’s breakfast service.
Chef Maybury himself gave thumbs down to the citrus crab salad with diced apple, avocado, and watermelon, because imitation snow crab was substituted for the jumbo lump crab meat he specified. The cost of crab dictated the change. It also meant that pistachio-crusted shrimp replaced his original scallops with sweet pea tarragon flan (in first class), but as it turns out, the shrimp re-heat and look better, too. Of the other finalists, chosen by “jury,” he says, the smoked duck breast and a penne pasta salad weren’t altered much, but his steamed vegetable antipasto with sweet-and-sour dressing morphed into grilled vegetable antipasti with hot-and-sour sauce, because grilled vegetables hold up better when re-heated with dry heat.
Business meal: shrimp PHOTOS: LH
Business class appetizers, such as the pairing of the pistachio-crusted shrimp and mango salsa, resulted from what Maybury calls “playing around.” In first class, the buffet-style service allows passengers to have as many of the four appetizers as they wish, whereas in business, they choose between two.
The chef turned in recipes for 16 main courses for first class and ten for business later in March. In first class, pan-seared turkey escalopes with sweet potato gratin and cranberry-orange compote made the cut for the holidays, although the accompanying Brussels sprouts did not, because their odor tends to permeate the airplane. Beef tenderloin with spaetzle, asparagus, and rosemary jus was accepted despite the cost, because the preparation is easy. The vanilla-thyme roasted cod replaced striped bass, which fluctuates in price too much, and the saffron fettuccine with roasted vegetables remained the same.
Rejects included coriander-dusted lamb loin that turned gray when re-heated, hard-to-find guinea hen, and venison loin that was expensive, had appearance problems, and hardly anyone liked. Lemon rosemary-crusted chicken breast, submitted for first class, ended up as a business entree, joining the saffron fettuccine and a grilled Atlantic salmon with celeriac puree and sweet pea-five bean jus.
Desserts actually were the biggest problem, notes Chef Maybury, who offered a dozen possibilities for first or business class in April. “The flight kitchens don’t have skilled pastry chefs, so they had a hard time replicating the recipes,” he explains. “And when they tried outside vendors, they got chalky cheesecake, tres leches cake that tasted like it was made from a mix, chocolate fudge cake that didn’t reflect what I do at Fives, and some things that were so bad, and you wouldn’t serve them at a cheap motel.”
They finally went with the apple raisin bread pudding made by an outside vendor and shipped to all the flight kitchens and, as a second choice for first class, a wild berry charlotte in its consommé with sweet cream that wasn’t his recipe but “came out well.”
Creating the menus for the initial half of the program culminated with a presentation in Dallas on September 12, and Maybury admits he learned a lot along the way. “The food has to be heated, cooled, packed, loaded onto trucks, sent to the ’plane, loaded, then heated and plated by people who aren’t culinary professionals. So many things can go wrong, it’s an eye-opener that they manage to serve thousands of decent meals,” he says.
On the other hand, his biggest concern is that the food he approved in Dallas can be consistently copied in 16 flight kitchens with varying degrees of skill and supervision. Unlike at his restaurant, there’s no chef or sous chef expediting every dish. “My name is on the menu,” he points out, “and I have to live with whatever variations occur.” So, if Chef Maybury shows up at a flight kitchen to make sure the recipes are being prepared properly, as Derenthal says all three Peninsula chefs have been invited to do, no one should be surprised.
Wines for Connoisseurs on Board service are selected by Vintner Discoveries and Lufthansa sommelier Markus Del Montego. His picks to accompany Chef Maybury’s menu include 2001 Chateau Marquis de Termed, France; 2001 Redbook Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Evans & Tate, Australia; 2000 Sean Mondavi-Errazuriz, Chile; and Taittenger, Comtes de Champagne Jg 97, France, among others.
Lufthansa has instituted collaborations with several hotels in Asia—the Shangri-La group in China, the Taj Hotels in India, and Raffles Hotels in Singapore, as well as the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and Hilton in Japan—but none involves nearly as many gateways as the program with Peninsula Hotels.
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