Mark Tazzioli is the menu design manager for British Airways. He spoke to Katherine Alano about the unique challenges of catering at altitude
What are the main challenges of in-flight catering?
Providing great tasting food at altitude is a challenge. The food has to be cooked and chilled to specified temperatures then reheated onboard by the cabin crew, and we have to allow for this process when designing dishes.
People lose on average 30% of their ability to taste at altitude, so we have to take this into account when creating the flavour profiles of the dishes we plan to use.
Can you give us an idea of the scale of the operation?
We use about 50 kitchens worldwide. On average we produce 100,000 meals per day just out of Heathrow for long-haul flights, and we buy 10 tonnes of British beef fillet.
Stringent quality control processes are in place within the kitchen, onboard and abroad, and we have a team of chefs who work with our suppliers constantly to maintain quality.
Why is umami important?
We are currently working with Leatherhead food research to try to understand more about food at altitude. We did some work with Heston Blumenthal for a Channel 4 programme which highlighted that umami could help boost flavour at altitude to compensate for the loss of ability to taste.
We don't use over the recommended amounts of salt in our food and we don't add any MSG or other additives.
What ingredients don't work well in-flight?
Ingredients that are too subtle tend not to work so we look for robust flavours. We don't tend to use fish like lemon sole as it would be too delicate for the process. Dishes that contain herbs and spices and have a good moisture content are the dishes that tend to work well for us.
Have you seen a change in what customers want to eat when flying?
Customers have become more concerned about food provenance and our efforts to reduce our environmental impact, so we do a lot of work to make sure we are sourcing sustainably. We also have many different menus to take into account the customer mix on certain routes. Our customers want authentic regional food on routes like India, Japan and China.