On a recent flight to Istanbul I nearly did a Champagne spit take when I looked over and saw a fully uniformed chef (white jacket, poofy toque and a little blue ribbon tied around his neck) roaming about the business class cabin handing out mezze-style appetizers.

Fine dining and airplanes are rarely considered in the same sentence, but some airlines are thinking of creative ways to bring the two elements together.

Flying chefs

Turkish Airlines introduced their “Flying Chef” concept in the summer of 2010 on their New York to Istanbul flights. They’ve since expanded to their Hong Kong route and plan to roll the concept out to Chicago and Tokyo in the near future.

Although it might seem a little gimmicky, these chefs are not just glorified flight attendants. All of the Flying Chefs were trained by the Viennese inflight catering firm Do & Co and they actually do the cooking for the business class cabin on board.

The chef on my flight also served as something of a Turkish cuisine ambassador, explaining to guests what borek are (cheese-filled pastries) and what the secret ingredient in shepherd’s salad is (it’s mint). It’s not a stretch to say that some of the best Turkish food I had on that trip to Istanbul was on the plane.

There are numerous challenges in creating quality food at cruising altitude. An airplane galley is a far cry from a professional kitchen and we actually respond to food differently at altitude than we do at ground level.

A groundbreaking study in 2010 from the University of Manchester and Unilever determined that background noise (think jet engines) dampens the taste of food and diminishes our capacity to appreciate salty and sweet flavours.

Turkish Airlines was one of the first to introduce inflight chefs onto their planes in business class (Asiana also has them), but they are by no means alone in using food to support their brands.

Cultural ambassadors

During a flight to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific a little while ago I dined on stir-fried prawns with X.O. sauce while crossing above the North Pole and ate wonton noodles in soup somewhere over Mongolia.

At Cathay Pacific City, the massive corporate headquarters for the airline beside Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong, I met with Alex McGowan, General Manager Product for Cathay Pacific Airways, to ask him about how Cathay is using food to reflect the brand’s values and status as cultural ambassador.

Haute cuisine in the air, photo courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways

“HK is renowned for having the best Chinese food in the world,” he told me, “so we always look to have the best Chinese food in the air. We do that either through initiatives with local restaurants or our own endeavours. I think that being able to deliver food that’s a good representation of Chinese food but equally appeals to the international passenger base that we carry is an important part of that proposition.”

Flag carriers

The airline’s latest partnership is with luxury chain Swire Hotels to offer inflight dishes like black miso pork belly and Iberico chorizo with prawns and tzatziki.

Photo by Franschhoek Wine Valley, via Flickr

Cathay is unique in partnering with restaurants instead of specific chefs, but McGowan said that was intentional. “We don’t do celebrity chefs,” he explained, “because that gets controversial in the sense of, wheredoes their personality begin and the airline’s personality end?”

One airline that has found the balance between its own brand and that of its country’s top chefs is South African Airways. On the long haul between Johannesburg and Washington I was presented with a menu partially created by Reuben Riffel, the chef of Reuben’s in the One&Only Hotel in Cape Town.

Not only does Riffel use local ingredients like pickled kingklip and South African lamb, but the airline supports his cuisine by working with a panel of local and international wine experts to create a stellar wine list. Not surprisingly, the focus is on South African wines.

Whatever flag the plane is carrying, one thing that all of the haute-cuisine offerings of these various airlines have in common is a welcome glass of French Champagne. That’s one business class tradition that will always be on brand in my books.