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High-flying chefs

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When top-notch chefs with Michelin stars and Gault-Millau points to their name start showing beads of sweat on their brow, Jan Trachsel knows that it’s all going to work out fine.

Jan is the manager of SWISS’s Inflight Culinary Development. Which means that, among other things, he’s the man responsible for SWISS Taste of Switzerland, the award-winning catering concept that invites a new leading chef every three months to concoct in-flight delights to be served to SWISS First and SWISS Business customers. The programme doesn’t just spotlight the chefs: It also showcases the regions in Switzerland where they are based. Each chef works intentionally with local producers and suppliers to ensure that every bite of his food creations offers a taste of the region concerned and of Switzerland’s culinary diversity in general. The award-winning concept is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. Reason enough for Jan and the team at Gate Gourmet Zurich to offer, for the March-to-May period, a “jubilee menu” featuring highlights of the programme over the years.

Inflight Culinary Development Manager Jan Trachsel tastes and assesses the top chefs’ creations.

And the sweat beads? They tend to form the moment the guest chefs, for all their experience, realise that food tastes different at 33,000 feet than it does in their restaurant – and that it needs to be prepared differently, too. “Our chefs have to be willing to compromise,” Jan emphasises. The meals are prepared on the ground to the chefs’ specifications, and are then regenerated and cooked to completion aloft. Which means that the chefs have to cede part of their control over the creative process. To show these top chefs what they are in for, Jan always visits them together with Dennis Puchert, the head of Gate Gourmet Zurich’s test kitchen, to explain the whole concept. It’s the starting gun of an intensive time for the chefs, as they work out their recipes and send their ideas to Jan and Gate Gourmet. Extensive trials are part and parcel of the process. “That’s the exciting thing about this concept,” says Jan. “It’s a delight to see how our chefs take our parameters to heart, work their creative magic and pose us challenges, too.”

Balik salmon tartare with horseradish cream, beetroot and goat’s cheese (Andreas Schwab, Ticino)

Sadly, not everything is possible. There are hygiene regulations, for a start: Fish must be cooked at a core temperature of at least 65 degrees Celsius before it can come aboard. Which can be a problem. “Many of our chefs wouldn’t cook a fish at such high temperatures in their own restaurant,” Jan explains. “But we discuss all the options in each case, and then try and find a compromise.” One recipe called for the fish to be drizzled with vinaigrette upon being served. But the Business Class cabin staff had very little time for the service anyway. “So what did we do? We served the meal with a small pipette of vinaigrette and let the passengers do this themselves,” Jan recalls. “We had our doubts at first, but it went really well!”

From left: Dennis Puchert (Executive Development Chef Switzerland Gate Gourmet), Felix Hartwein (Key Account SWISS Gate Gourmet), Hanspeter Meyer (Catering Operation SWISS), Dino Schönenberger (Executive Chef Switzerland Gate Gourmet), Jan Trachsel (Inflight Culinary Development SWISS), Esther Bürge (Inflight Service Procedures SWISS).

Only once has a guest chef planned to drop out at short notice. But his replacement Antonio Colaianni (who is currently at the Gustav restaurant in Zurich) turned out to be a natural at high-altitude cuisine. “Luckily, I twigged pretty quickly what it was all about,” Antonio says. While the guest chefs generally have three months to prepare, he had just four weeks. It was only the seasoning that he was unsure about. “I usually salt to the max. So when the test kitchen told me we needed more salt, I was really taken aback.” Salt tastes up to 30 per cent less strong aloft – which Antonio hadn’t known. For a brief moment, he had those sweat beads, too.

Black cod with citrus vinaigrette, cima di rapa coulis, red peppers, saffron fennel and samphire. (Antonio Colaianni, Zurich)

Information

The gastronomy concept SWISS Taste of Switzerland:

When it comes to selecting his guest chefs for SWISS Taste of Switzerland, Jan Trachsel looks at not just the region but the season as well. Mountain areas dominate in the winter months, while the cities tend to feature more in spring and summer. The concept is intended to encourage passengers to visit the regions featured, too.
It’s usually about nine months from the moment a chef is approached to the moment the finished meals are served on board. In its 15-year history, the SWISS Taste of Switzerland concept has so far showcased 64 chefs, and every Swiss canton has been featured at least once. With SWISS First main courses, beef is still far and away the favourite with some 270 portions a day. It’s followed by chicken, fish and the vegetarian option, with 180 portions a day each. The vegetarian recipes for SWISS’s in-flight meals have been supplied by Zurich’s famous Hiltl restaurant since 2009.

Good to know

When you eat or drink something aloft, it takes your senses longer to react. Tastes and smells seem blander – just as they do if you have a severe cold. That can make in-flight food taste dull. And that’s why the chef has to season it more.

Text: Manuela Enggist / Photos: Jen Ries