Behind the scenes of one of the world’s largest airline kitchens

Behind the scenes of one of the world’s largest airline kitchens

An inside look at how Cathay Pacific Catering Services conceptualises and prepares its in-flight meals to offer passengers a journey to remember.

By Dewi Sriwahyuto
BI 150
Aug 12, 2016

You know that you’re in for quite a flight if your first meal on board is a serving of caviar with a glass of champagne.

A fancy start like that suggests a fancier meal and that’s exactly what Cathay Pacific Airways, the flag carrier of Hong Kong, is offering their Business Class passengers who were en route from Hong Kong to New York this July.

Think dishes like poached Maine lobster, smoked trout, truffle tortellini with truffled butternut, or braised cod with stir-fried pak choy – a dish that is native to Hong Kong. The in-flight dining experience is sweetened by indulgent desserts such as chocolate soufflé with dulce de leche ice cream, more traditional ones like red bean soup with lotus seeds, and even a selection of cheeses namely Chaumes, Gruyere, Cambozola, and Bouchon de Chevre.

With ever-changing menus that vary from destination to destination, all passengers of Cathay Pacific get to experience a different culinary journey thousands of feet above ground with each of their travels.

Elevated in-flight dining experience

Cathay Pacific Catering Services (CPCS), the wholly-owned catering arm Cathay Pacific, oversees a broad aspect of the in-flight dining experience – from menu design and quality of ingredients, to food preparation and tray setting.

As passengers become increasingly more food-savvy, the challenge for the team is finding innovative ways to delight their taste buds whilst catering to their diverse needs. As a result, CPCS, today, sources ingredients from more than 300 approved suppliers to ensure good provenance and the right flavours for the creation of authentic Hong Kong and International dishes.

Cathay Pacific Head of Catering Aaron Claxton.

Speaking to Cathay Pacific Head of Catering Aaron Claxton at the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong headquarters, the 52-year-old former chef said: “We’re mindful of the source of our products. Are they welfare-friendly? Are they sustainable sources? These factors are very important to us and also particularly popular with the millennial group.”

This led to a recent partnership with acclaimed company Dingley Dell, which fits those standards and requirements.

The farm, located in United Kingdom, ensures that its pigs are well fed and treated, which creates a better distribution of fat in the meat and a taste that is more delectable when cooked.

Mr Claxton said: “When I went down with my team to check out the farm, I saw people massaging the pigs at night! This is all part of being welfare-friendly. We constantly try to find companies like that.”

To set itself apart from the rest of the airlines, Cathay Pacific has also recently embarked on a few exciting, albeit bold, collaborations with both local and international names.

JING tea – a London-based tea company has, for the first time, partnered with an airline to serve a wide selection of teas both on ground and on board a flight. What this means for passengers of Cathay Pacific is the freedom and opportunity to choose a tea of their liking- green, white, yellow, oolong, black and puerh teas, together with a range of full-flavoured herbal infusions, instead of being handed a cup of nondescript tea.

Cathay Pacific’s galleys are now also stocked with bespoke chocolates on top of the usual treats like cookies and chips. The catering team worked with a Hong-Kong based chocolatier to design and produce boxes and boxes of signature chocolates that are not available for purchase anywhere else in the world except on board a Cathay Pacific flight.

Compact dining

What looks good, should taste delicious too. And that’s what Mr Claxton wanted to ensure when he redesigned the Economy Class meal tray together with New Zealand product designer Jamie McLellan.

Inspired by Asian bento boxes, the compact design of the new meal tray allows food to fit more snugly and also reduces material usage without compromising on aesthetics and quality. Mr Claxton believes that the minimalistic look of the tray will elevate a passenger’s in-flight dining experience.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - sophisticated setting

Little details such as the matte finish aluminum lid gives a feel of simplified sophistication.

Mr Claxton said: “We’re all about functionality and simplicity. We’re not a ‘bling bling’ carrier with all the ornate details. When you look at our brand strategy, the key word here is ‘Considered Simplicity’. We don’t want to overcomplicate things.”

Inside Cathay Pacific Catering Services

Before every meal is served on board, there is an entire process that the airline’s produce go through, which passengers are not privy to.

The team at CPCS works on shifts to ensure that daily operations go on without a hitch as they are responsible for supplying food to 43 international airlines including reputable carriers like Qatar Airways, Emirates and Air China. This makes CPCS the largest Hong Kong-based air caterer and one of the largest flight kitchens in the world.

From the receiving of goods and quality checking each of them, to cooking the dishes and delivering them up the aircraft, the catering unit of Cathay Pacific produces an average of 81,100 meals a day, catering to roughly 196 flights daily.

The team of 2,146 staff, with close to 500 working on the production line, has its processes in place of course, where a bulk of the operations is automated. CPCS boasts one of the industry’s most high-tech machinery, which includes omelette-making machines, tilting braising machines and Hong Kong’s first automatic tray-setting machine.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes tour of the action that takes place daily at Cathay Pacific Catering Services, located in Hong Kong International Airport.

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24-hour surveillance

Entering the CPCS facilities

There is a strict safety and hygiene process for visitors to pass before they are allowed to enter the facilities. Upon arrival, visitors are required to provide identification or passport details, go through a body temperature check and complete a health questionnaire. All staff has to go through a thorough pre-employment and annual medical examination.

Before entering the production area and kitchen at CPCS, you have to don appropriate gear, wash your hands, and use a lint roller to remove small fibres from your gear. Visitors have to be accompanied by CPCS staff. CPCS is under 24-hour surveillance.

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9,000 cartons of food

Warehouse

CPCS receives over 24,000kg and around 9,000 cartons of food every day.

Before food enters the kitchen, the Quality Assurance and Warehouse staff will check all of the items in the receiving area to ensure that the products comply with the highest standards of safety and hygiene set and expected by CPCS.

Perishable goods are sent to the freezer, which have to be processed on the day of delivery. Dry items such as Evian bottles are sent to separate rooms to avoid cross-contamination.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Warehouse

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7,000kg vegetables

Vegetable Room

Every day, CPCS process over 7,000kg of vegetables and salad items. Once the basic preparation – checking, washing and sanitising – is completed, ingredients are then sent to different kitchens to be cooked or further processed.

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12,000kg fresh fruits

Fruit Room

CPCS imports and processes around 12,000kg fresh fruits per day, including an average of 6,000kg assorted melons. The staff in this section runs a quality check on all fruits both before and after washing, sanitising and processing.



Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Fruits, Watermelon pieces

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80,000 baked goods

Bakery

CPCS produces more than 80 types and approximately 80,000 pieces of baked goods, including 30,000 portions of soft rolls every day.

The pastry chefs also bake about 8,000 croissants and muffins every day.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Bakery preparing croissants

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150-300kg worth of food cooked each day

Central Hot Kitchen

Approximately 80 per cent of all the cooked food produced by CPCS is Chinese cuisine. Seen here at the Hot-Wok section, the CPCS chefs take pride in producing authentic dishes native to Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Central Hot Kitchen

To deliver quantity, the bulk of the work in the Central Hot Kitchen is undertaken by high-tech machinery. There is a giant rice cooker that cooks about 150-300kg worth of food in 20 minutes. The chefs typically use this to cook congee, beef stew and fried rice.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Machinery

The custom-design omelette-making machine produces on average 6,000 omelettes daily. This section operates on two shifts with two designated chefs for each.

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150,000 dishes prepared

Dishing Section

Cooked food is dished in accordance with customer specifications. When passengers request for special meals, CPCS prepares these custom orders accordingly. Cathay Pacific offers a wide range of special meals such as for those who are diabetic or vegetarian.

CPCS has a dedicated and separate area for dishing halal meals, while kosher meals are made in the Kosher Kitchen. There are about 160 staff working at the dishing section and over 150,000 dishes are produced every day.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Fish

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62,000 complete trays

Tray Setting Section

Cold items such as salads, appetisers and desserts are pre-set on trays, together with the plates and cutlery, which are then put into meal carts. Once the carts are completed, they are sent to the outbound cold rooms on the Power & Free conveyor.

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Average 81,100 meals

Outbound Section

CPCS has a daily production capacity of 100,000 meals with the highest record being 99,312 meals on August 1, 2015.

Once the completed meal carts reach the outbound area, they are stored in the dispatch cold rooms and checked by CPCS Catering Coordinators (supervisors) before they are left to ‘cold soak’, which means to store the meal carts in 0-4oC room in order to lower the temperature of the meals to food safety standard.

The meals are then transferred to the aircraft by refrigerated hi-loader trucks, ready for takeoff and to be served.

Cathay Pacific's airline kitchen - Outbound trucks