No matter how hard airlines try, plane meals aren’t ever going to win a Michelin Star. While flying food has certainly come a long way since the horror shows of the sixties and seventies, almost everyone agrees that there is always something slightly off with anything served at 30,000ft. The differences are often imperceptible and are rarely enough to completely put you off your dinner. Nevertheless, there’s a perpetual sense of impending doom whenever cabin crew tell you that it’s time to eat.
There have been several popular theories as to why plane food might taste different to anything cooked on the ground. Author Christopher Bartlett, for instance, in his book “Plane Clever” posits that the key lies in the meal prep. Because of the impracticalities associated with cooking in the sky, “Meals have to be prepared beforehand and reheated,” compromising the quality of what can be provided. Bartlett also theorises that ,“Because of the dry air in the cabin, meals have to have a lot of liquid, often as sauce. Both of these ideas are not without merit.
However, according to the executive culinary chef for German airline Lufthansa, the fault actually doesn’t lie with the food itself. In a wide-ranging interview with CN Traveller, Grant Mickels revealed that we may never get to make genuinely delicious in-flight food, for a couple of surprising reasons.
Mickels explains that, “At 35,000 feet, the first thing that goes is your sense of taste," adding that, “the quality of the food and its ingredients isn't to blame, it's the way you experience it.” A combination of cabin pressure and the cool, dry air that is part and parcel of air-travel has the effect of making “your taste buds go numb, almost as if you had a cold." It is for this reason that airline chefs are facing an uphill battle.
The dulling effect of altitude might be the most significant factor in affecting our perception of taste, but it isn’t the only issue at play. Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, explained to The New York Times back in 2017 that details as seemingly insignificant as background noise and plastic cutlery can have a dramatic and detrimental impact on our enjoyment of a meal. All of these elements combine to create an environment that can cause “our sensitivity to sweet and salty foods drops by about 30 percent in the air, compared to when we’re on the ground,” according to a report jointly funded by Lufthansa and The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of them, airlines haven’t given up on creating menus that we can actually enjoy. Two years ago, Cathay Pacific announced plans for a beer specially designed to be drunk at altitude, while dozens of airlines have turned to award-winning chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Kunio Tokuoka to create top class eating experiences. Though the science might be firmly set against them, it’s obvious that not every aviation business is happy to settle for substandard grub.