Taste-Testing Airline Food at Amazing Food Creations

Would you willfully submit yourself to taste-test a bunch of airline food? Probably not, but I did this past week thanks to the people at Amazing Food Creations. And you know what? It was good. Beyond that, learning more about the insanity involved in getting food on an airplane was completely fascinating.

A friend of mine works at Amazing Food Creations (AFC) outside Chicago, so when I mentioned I’d be in town, we decided to set up a visit. AFC provides food to a couple of the largest airlines in the world. They put together everything from coach to first class, and they do domestic Dari Carre Amazing Food Creationsand international. They don’t do buy-on-board food just yet, but they’d like to get in the game.

So how come you’ve never heard of AFC even though you’ve likely had their food? It’s because there are an unbelievable number of middlemen involved in the process, so you’re pretty far removed from these guys.

I had the chance to sit with co-founder Dari Carré (pictured) to learn exactly how the process works. It’s nuts.

Airline Food Flow

Complicated enough for you? Let me explain those numbers and hope I took accurate notes. I’ll use AFC as an example.

  1. First, the airlines figure out what AFC Test Kitchenthey need and put it out in a spec sheet that also shows the pricepoint per meal. That info is distributed.

    Then AFC and other food manufacturers prepare a presentation for them with prototype meals that are made in their test kitchens (at right). Sometimes, manufacturers deal with brokers to get their food onboard while other times, they just deal directly.

    Every airline has different requirements. AFC wouldn’t use any current names, but they said that Northwest wanted traditional, American meals with a bland flavor palette to appeal to its customers. Other airlines want something a little spicier and more exotic.

    Let’s say the airline likes what AFC has to offer. They’ll probably go back and forth for awhile until they get exactly what they want. Finally, a contract will be awarded. It’s usually 12 to 24 months in length.

  2. Once AFC wins the bid, they have to figure out how to turn the prototype meal into a full production meal. That can require small or large tweaks to make sure the product is consistently good when it’s mass-produced.
  3. AFC does all their manufacturing in their suburban Chicago facility. From there, a distributor comes to pick up the grub and distribute it. AFC provides food to airlines throughout the US and Canada, so multiple distributors will end up being used.
  4. The distributor will take the food to the caterer in each airport location. These caterers are the ones you may know – GateGourmet, LSG Sky Chefs, etc. AFC only makes entrees, so these guys take them and add the salad, dinner roll, trays, condiments, etc. They then put it on the plane.
  5. Lastly, finally, the flight attendant brings the meal to you and you shove it in your mouth.

 
Insane, right? I couldn’t believe it. It seems like there’s a lot of opportunity for the caterers to start taking over more of these roles so that you only need the airline, the caterer, and the food manufacturer.

It can get even more difficult than this. Airlines will sometimes contract with celebrity chefs to do meals. You might remember, for AFC Rice Pilaf and Curryexample, when Charlie Trotter partnered with United for meals. Well, when this happens, the company and the chef spend a great deal of time putting together meals that are true to the chef but also will hold up well on the plane. For example, you want to cut vegetables a certain way so that they prepare correctly onboard.

After all this, we headed to the test kitchen for a little bit of taste-testing. The chef and co-founder, Dari’s husband Eric Carré, creates food with several other chefs. These guys absolutely love doing this. It’s really funny to see AFC Mandarin Orange Chickensomeone put so much into airplane food, but it’s also pretty refreshing to know that there are people who are trying.

They brought out a spread of food for me to try ranging from the surprisingly delicious vegan 7-grain pilaf with fruit compote and sweet bulger wheat (left) to the just awesome mandarin orange chicken (right) which is served in First Class.

It was really interesting to see how the vegetables reacted to cooking. The meals are supposed to be heated in a convection oven on a plane, but they used a microwave becauFrench Meadow in Pouchse of our time constraints. The broccoli was soggy, and Chef Eric (as everyone called him) explained that the way they prepared it meant it was overcooked in a microwave but it would be in good shape on the airplane.

While AFC is doing traditional meals for now, they’re also looking at the buy-on-board world. They have a frozen meal that actually steam cooks in a bag (with Dari at top and at right). I tried them and they were really good, especially the Cuban veggies. Maybe one day you’ll be able to get it onboard.

Thanks to everyone at Amazing Food Creations for spending the afternoon with me. If you’d like to try their steam-cooked meals, head to Whole Foods where they sell them under the French Meadow name.


21 Responses to Taste-Testing Airline Food at Amazing Food Creations

  1. Oliver says:

    So wait – that first class meal i consume on the way from sfo to lhr is (depending on the airline) actually cooked in Chicago? And then shipped to gate gourmet at SFO?

    • CF says:

      Yes, that’s right. But the meals are flash frozen so it’s not like they’re just sitting around at room temp while they schlep them across the country.

  2. fun and interesting, thanks CF

  3. Originally i thought that flow chart was a joke….

    Chicago is a good spot for a company like this to be. Its a trucking hub, so its makes stuff cheap to ship.

  4. Wow, just looking at some of those pictures is making me hungry, I love airlplane food. :P

  5. frank says:

    Chicken or Beef?….chicken or Beef?

    In all honesty, I’m glad those days are over in coach. You’d run out of someone’s first choice and people would freak. Getting upset over what in reality is a TV dinner. Even buy on board items are full of sugar, carbs and processed.

  6. SEAN says:

    Don’t you mean steak or fish? After all this is Airplane! food we are talking about.

    Just ask Leslie Neilson!

  7. In the days when meals were common, everyone complained about airline food but would bring that tray table down at the first sign a meal was being served. People have always loved to hate airline food and couldn’t wait to eat it….lol

    Interesting on how long the process can take from start to finish on getting a contract.

    Also airline meals are like frozen mircowave dinners. You eat one and think how could any company executive approve of this to be made. But you have to remember freshly make the food will taste different then after it’s been frozen and then reheated by someone somewhere using equipment that was not in the company test kitchen and by people not reading the cooking instructions. And it will look really different also.

    Brett do these people ever hop on a plane to see how their food looks and tastes after it’s been reheated at 40,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic or Pacific? Maybe they need to work backwards and think of ways to package/cook the food so it doesn’t look and taste bad when served.

    • A says:

      Actually airplane meals taste different in a pressurized atmosphere at 40,000ft than at normal atmosphere. Your taste buds don’t quite work the same in-flight and why there were all the jokes about the meals tasting like cardboard, etc.

      While I miss domestic in-flight meals for the snacks they provided, the drop of them changed my corporate travel policy. Now the company will comp me a meal at my orgin airport if the flight is delayed. In the old days they figured I’d get a meal in the air.

    • CF says:

      Oh yeah, these guys definitely do get on planes and sample the food. I was amazed at how excited these guys got when it came to making a good product. They not only sample the product but they talk to people onboard to get opinions. Now, I have no clue what other food mfrs do.

  8. Zach says:

    @David SFeastbay: well said re: everyone loving to hate airline food and the familiar mass-deployment of tray tables at the first hint TV dinner being prepared in an airline cabin.

    @Cranky: Awesome post. It’s hard to get one’s mind around the sheer volume of edible material that these guys must crank out on a yearly (heck, probably a daily) basis. It’s somewhat refreshing to think that there’s still a human being out there behind every piece of rubber chicken in the sky. If they’re serving airlines like UA and the former Northwest, then it would seem like they’d have to create thousands (if not tens of thousands) of meals each day. How many line cooks do they have working in that facility, which must be massive? Also, do they have dedicated chefs working on the Kosher, Hindu, vegan, and other specialty options, or are those contracted out to other companies?

    Great work, as always!

  9. Davester says:

    The airlines or the airport caterer could just grab a bunch of Trader Joe’s entrees. They have a wide range of flash-frozen entrees from Mac n cheese to Chicken Tikka Masala.

  10. Neal says:

    This reminds me of the Top Chef episode a few seasons back where the chefs went to a CO Newark hangar and prepared meals using the airplane’s oven to serve in flight. Despite the best of intentions, it didn’t turn out the way all the chefs hoped.

  11. pf says:

    I understand most domestic First Class food is flash frozen now – I wonder if any entrees are cooked fresh. This had me thinking back years ago to First Class flights with lovely catering on UA and AA.. Nice to see airlinemeals.net is back up after a very long absence.

  12. Tim says:

    Cranky – can you (or they) share any detail on what the price point is for meals in cattle / first class? I’d be interested to know how much of your ticket price goes on food.

    • CF says:

      Good question. I thought I had this, but I don’t. I seem to remember in our discussions seeing that the price was very low, less than $10. Of course, it’s important to remember that they only do the main courses and sides (if included), so the total cost of the meal after salad, bread, dessert, and presentation will be more.

  13. Pingback: Dallas Daily News – GreatDallasVacations.com » Blog Archive » How Airline Food Gets To Your Tray

  14. Chrissy says:

    How do I sign up to do this!? I LOVE airline food.

  15. I have been trying to sell my bakery products to the airlines. How do I start?

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