American-style Chinese Flyaway
by Anne Spiselman

 When American Airlines launched nonstop service between Chicago and Shanghai in April—the airline’s first venture into China—passengers in first class lunched on sliced char siu (Chinese barbeque sauce) duck and crab bundles with soybean-seaweed salad, followed by sweet-and -sour sea bass or stir-fried chicken with Chinese sausage in oyster sauce. For a late-night snack on the Boeing 777-200’s 14hr 20min trip, they could opt for a selection of dim sum: scallop dumplings, shrimp siu mai and beef balls, accompanied by soy and hot sauces. Before landing at Pudong International Airport (Airways, December 2000) at 1415lt the next day, they savored wonton noodle soup or grilled chili-marinated scallops with cucumber-onion salad.

The story was much the same in business class, with sesame shrimp and Asian noodles substituting for the dim sum and without the soup. Even customers seated in coach enjoyed Chinese choices, among them an appetizer of Oriental chicken and an entrée (main course to non-US readers) of pork medallions in Asian sauce for lunch, a moo shu chicken roll at night, and fried yellow noodles with dim sum before touchdown.

"We wanted people to have the same kind of dining experience as they do in a Chinese restaurant,” says John Koo, account executive chef for Gate Gourmet, American’s catering service.

Of course, serving restaurant-worthy meals at 36,000 feet involves much more than meets the eye. Most airlines do not have the luxury of onboard chefs preparing dishes to order. Food safety is the first priority, requiring everything to be chilled to 45°F (+7°C) or colder. And flight attendants have to be able to reconstitute hot items in the convection ovens in each galley. Something as simple as keeping steamed rice from drying out requires considerable ingenuity.

 And then, there was the matter of the jellyfish.

One of the biggest challenges for Chef Koo and George V Horvat, American Airlines’s market manager service planning and development food and beverage, who was in charge of the project, was designing a menu that was traditional enough for Asian travellers but accessible enough that Westerners would like the food. “In first and business, we also wanted a premium product reflecting ticket prices,” Horvat explains. “In coach, the length of the flight made it important to have interesting, innovative entrées and to maximize the experience compared to other carriers, given cost constraints.”

Horvat had seven months to create the menu, more than twice the time spent on the food for American’s start-up to India in November 2005. That enabled him not only to meet with Koo and Gate Gourmet at Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago five or six times to evaulate options, but also to supplement those sessions with tastings for the airline’s Asian Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group (APIERG) and other employees, who provided valuable feedback on everything from cultural customs to specific dishes. Among their suggestions: serving bite-size portions that could easily be picked up with chopsticks, and offering desserts with less sugar to appeal to Chinese tastes.

The question of whether or not to offer jellyfish epitomized the kinds of decisions that had to be made. “For the Chinese, jellyfish is a gourmet delicacy, as are intestines, sea cucumber and shark’s fin,” Chef Koo notes. “But many Americans won’t eat them.” Horvat, who likes jellyfish himself, ultimately nixed it as being too strange for most Western palates. Five-spice beef shank, also a popular appetizer in Chinese restaurants, failed the cut because the meat dried out too fast and Westerners didn’t like the texture; rolled beef tenderloin was used instead. Barbecued pork, beloved by almost everyone who eats pork, was rejected in favor of char siu duck or chicken, because the pork became greasy-fatty when cold and did not reheat well. Chinese roast duck, hacked up the authentic way, was a no-no because of the labor cost of portioning it—and the bones (avoided by airlines, because there is nowhere to put them while you’re eating).

 Overall, Horvat and his team tested 24 Chinese entrées to come up with a dozen for the three first and business class Chicago–Shanghai menu cycles, which rotate monthly for a year or so. They tried 18 appetizers and narrowed them down to nine. For first class, they also sampled 12 soups to settle on three and eight cold plates to select three. Although coach class meals come from an outside vendor (the Chinese ones are from Hema Food Services) they looked at six appetizers to pick a trio. In many cases, the choice wasn’t between good and bad but between good and better.

And that was just part of the foodservice package. For the Western meals, which account for half of the lineup, Horvat fortunately could recycle dishes created by celebrity chef Stephan Pyles in 2005 for trans-Atlantic flights. A few items are American Airlines signature dishes, among them the first class smoked salmon appetizer and the ice-cream sundaes in first and business. But the Shanghai-to-Chicago menus developed with Gate Gourmet in Shanghai necessitated additional considerations. For instance, Horvat wanted a baked char siu bao (pork bun) resembling those available at American Chinatown bakeries, but unlike authentic steamed Chinese bao. With no outside vendor like Hema Foods (on the US end) supplying dim sum, he worked with local chef Richard Chen to make what essentially is a Western bun with a Chinese stuffing.

They also placed congee (rice porridge), a traditional Chinese breakfast, as a first class choice, with add-ins such as red beans, corn kernels, and pine nuts.

One big hit with first and business class passengers, both Asian and Western, as well as with flight attendants (which is saying a lot), came about by accident. Horvat and the Shanghai kitchen’s general manager were debating the relative merits of a non-Western pasta and a rice bowl, when the GM took some spaghetti-like egg noodles that were laying around and whipped up a Shanghai noodle bowl. Horvat loved it, so now it’s featured with cod and shrimp, three peppers and black bean sauce in cycle one; pork and shrimp with vegetables and oyster sauce in cycle two, and chicken and scallops in cycle three.

Rules of restaurant-kitchen cooking simply do not apply for in-air service, however. The way a stir-fry is prepared for first class is typical. Instead of wokking all the ingredients together, which would result in a soupy mess when reheated (the sauce would break down), the meat, vegetables and sauce are cooked separately. The dish is packed for boarding with the vegetables on the bottom, the meat on top and the sauce on the side. When the flight attendant reheats the meal, the steam from the vegetables keeps the meat moist. Then it’s flipped onto a plate so the colorful vegetables are on top, and the warm sauce is added last.

In business class, the same entrée consists of meat and vegetables in a casserole. Passengers receive a ramekin of sauce to pour over the meal.

Chef Koo says he has toned down the hot-pepper spiciness of Szechwan [Sichuan] recipes to medium, so as not to burn Westerners’ mouths. At the same time, he adjusts seasonings to take dining-in-the-air dulling of the palate into account, for example by spiking sweet-and-sour sauces with a little chili to enhance their flavor. He generally avoids breaded, deep-fried food, because it ends up being floury; but he does pan-fry. His trick for preventing steamed rice—or noodles, or dim sum—from drying out is a cabbage leaf covering, which holds in the moisture during reheating without imparting any flavor. In first class, the dim sum are wrapped and heated individually, then plated for presentation. The dumplings are not offered in business class, because they would cool off before they could be served to 35 passengers (as opposed to a maximum of 16 in first), a situation that also applies to soup and congee.

Ironically, coach flyers can have dim sum. The entire supper of fried yellow noodles with Imperial sauce, a dumpling, a siu mai, and cabbage is boarded frozen, then heated and served from carts.

 Aside from the Tsingtao beer provisioned in China for both directions, alcoholic drinks are the same as on other American Airlines international flights. Some route-specific wines are under consideration, but in the meantime, the Laroche St Martin chablis in first class and Raymond Napa Valley Reserve chardonnay in business both pair well with sweet-and-sour entrées like the sea bass. Château Cantemerle Grand Cru, a classic bold Bordeaux, goes well with spicier meat dishes, such as braised beef noodle soup with red chili in cycle two or Hunan beef in cycle three, and Rosemount Estate Australian Shiraz complements anything with a fruity sauce.

Tea service merits special attention. Jasmine tea (in individual bags) is boarded for first and business class, while black tea (poured from pots) is available in coach. Chinese tea cups and servers are part of the premium class dinnerware, but Horvat says that specific chinaware wasn’t created for the Shanghai route, unlike for flights to Japan and Taipei. He maintains that there is “no additional perceived value to customers,” but settings do include Chinese rice bowls, chopsticks and chopstick rests, as well as ceramic Chinese soup spoons where needed.

The Asian food has racked up compliments from passengers, according to Horvat. Besides the Shanghai noodle bowl, the Chinese appetizer was the winner, and that was before the unveiling of cycle two’s spicy shrimp and beef roulade with purple pickled ginger salad and cycle three’s char siu chicken and drunken shrimp with seaweed salad. Coach flyers raved about their Oriental chicken appetizer—and wanted a bigger portion. While main courses are provisioned 50-50 Asian and Western, Horvat is contemplating changing the ratio, because the Chinese entrées have been the first to go.

He is also thinking about shifting the third meal on the Shanghai–Chicago route from breakfast to brunch/lunch, because the plane lands at 1700. And adding snacks in coach, because of the length of the flight. After a year or so, the food and beverage service will have a general review and freshening. As for Chef Koo, he may very well be cooking up an argument in favor of jellyfish for the next round of menus.