Have you ever wondered how your airplane meals are made? We go behind the scenes with Cathay Pacific Catering Services (CPCS) CEO Jenny Lam.
How many meals do you churn out a day, who do you cater to, and how big is the team?
We’ve been in operation for 48 years. We are producing about 85,000 meals a day, and handling about 210 daily flights. We’re not just serving Cathay Pacific — we have 42 airline customers. We have about 1,700 staff, plus 800 subcontractors. Altogether we have over 2,500 people.
Tell us about the journey from raw ingredient to a fully cooked meal on the plane.
The raw ingredients first arrive at our receiving department, our warehouse. We have to ensure the food is at the right temperature. It has to be -15°C if frozen, it cannot just be -4 degrees. Also for fruits, we may need to do a sweetness test: some airlines specify the sweetness level for watermelons. There are some gadgets we use for testing sweetness or saltiness.
And then after that, the food gets processed at their respective preparation areas. The next part is the cooking. We have a hot kitchen, a cold kitchen, Japanese kitchen, a halal kitchen, and so forth. After cooking, the food needs to go through a blast chilling process — we need to blast chill the food from over 80°C down to 4°. This is also a necessary procedure to ensure food safety. The staff at the assembly line will then assemble the meals for each airline based on pictures of the dish, what it looks like, the portion size.
All the trays go into a meal cart, and then all the hot meals are put into oven racks. Each oven rack is transported onto the aircraft and inserted into the [plane] oven right away. The crew only needs to press a button to reheat the meal according to the time we specify. Normally, it’s 20 minutes at 180°C.
Any differences between economy class meals and business or first class meals?
If you fly economy, you get an aluminum foil kind of casserole. Economy class meal ingredients are not premium ingredients, and only 10 percent of dishes will have a beef component. You always get chicken, or pork, or fish. And usually they are frozen ingredients. For vegetables, I think half of them are frozen, half are fresh.
Business and first class all get fresh or chilled meat, rather than frozen. In business class, you always get beef fillet as an option. For first class, desserts are fancier. You also get to choose when to eat if you are in first class. And the rice is freshly cooked. And we have a frying pan on board for frying eggs, and a toaster. For business and first class, we use woks for the Chinese dishes — otherwise you don’t get the real wok flavor.
You only prepare food for outbound Hong Kong flights, Cathay or otherwise. What about the flights coming into Hong Kong from other countries?
It’s always different — some caterers are better, some are not. That’s why when my friends complain to me about Cathay’s food, I always ask, are you flying out of Hong Kong or into Hong Kong? I think Chinese cuisine is always our strength in Hong Kong, and a weakness of other kitchens outside Hong Kong.
We do have problems when Cathay has a caterer overseas going on strike, like what happened a year ago with a caterer in London or Paris. We had to have a contingency snack pack for passengers coming back. Every year it’s a problem.
Have you ever had to recall any food on a large scale?
In 2008, this melamine milk incident broke out in China. Every day we have dedicated staff that look into the FEHD website to see whether there are any food alerts, any countries, ingredients being recalled by FEHD or banned. Then we need to chase supply chain to see whether we procured that ingredient. So with the melamine incident, at first we noticed we had milk from China that contained melamine, so we started with isolating all the fresh milk that was usually served on board for coffee.
And then we realized the biscuits we bought from Australia were also using milk or milk powder from China. So we needed to trace it down to that level. We had to make a lot of replacements. You can have chocolate that uses milk, and that milk is from China, so we just had to stop using it completely.
What makes you nervous?
Typhoons. When there is a typhoon, we need to do a lot of preparation. Let’s say when we know there is a typhoon No. 8 to be hoisted tonight, airlines will cancel all the flights from tonight until tomorrow morning. But after that, there will be maybe 50 flights canceled and passengers stuck in Hong Kong, so the airlines need to operate more flights, and the aftermath is bit hectic for us.