It’s 22 August, and we’re waiting in an unassuming entrance hall at the Gate Gourmet building in Kloten. This subsidiary of gategroup, the global provider of onboard services and products, is the world’s leading supplier of catering to airlines, airports and airport lounges. Gate Gourmet also supplies SWISS with its airline-specific meals.
Kim Ang Svay, who has been the Head of Development at Gate Gourmet for ten years now, welcomes us and takes us straight up to the test kitchen on the third floor. This is where the new meals for the various cabin classes on board are created and where the vegetarian options provided by Hiltl are reproduced. The successful partnership between SWISS and Hiltl is now in its eleventh year. People were already hard at work in the kitchen on the day before our visit to prepare everything for the big day today: approving the vegetarian options that will be served in SWISS First and SWISS Business on long-haul flights in 2020.
A selected team of experts (executive chefs and specialists of Gate Gourmet, Hiltl and SWISS Inflight Services) had already had the pleasure of a first tasting of 16 dishes at Hiltl’s in advance. They had also already had a briefing session. Every year, a month before the first tasting in July, Hiltl sends SWISS an Excel file with all the ingredients for the vegetarian SWISS First and SWISS Business meal suggestions for the next flying year, along with explanatory comments and sometimes pictures of the dishes as well. Inspiration for the menu planning is found in Hiltl’s extensive recipe database, which consists of over 2,500 dishes. Current and popular Hiltl dishes are also taken into account in the development of new recipes for SWISS.
SWISS and Gate Gourmet check the suggested menus together for the following criteria: seasonality, majority appeal, taste, appearance and logistics/feasibility depending on the volume and cabin class. Gate Gourmet usually prepares the dishes one day before departure, special requests or changes up to just a few hours in advance. Depending on the consistency of a particular dish – a very runny tomato sauce, for instance – the transfer from the kitchen to nearby Zurich airport can be such a challenge that it might have to be removed from the menu if it proves too difficult to handle. The possibilities for reheating and presentation on board is another obstacle that has to be considered, as some dishes might require too much time and/or space for the preparation.
Gate Gourmet measures the dishes for SWISS First into aluminium trays, then covers them with aluminium foil and labels them. Once on board, the meals are freshly arranged on SWISS tableware personally by the cabin crew in accordance with their instructions. So a risotto, for instance, will only be served in SWISS First because the cabin crew can arrange each dish individually on the tableware in accordance with Gate Gourmet’s instructions, which gives the risotto an additional creaminess on board. Because of the larger number of passengers, this would not be possible in SWISS Business. That is why SWISS Business dishes are brought on board on SWISS tableware, then just need to be reheated and served by the cabin crew. Another important criterion in the choice of menu suggestions is the comparison with the previous year’s menus to ensure passengers are offered culinary variety. The recipes for the dishes are tweaked according to the feedback received, then go on to celebrate their “premières” at the first tasting at Hiltl’s.
Of the 16 dishes presented, eight are chosen at the first tasting, and then cooked in-house by Gate Gourmet for the first time a few weeks later. The reason there are eight dishes is because there are four for SWISS First and four for SWISS Business, with each of the dishes representing one of the changing seasons. The menus are cooked again, this time using Gate Gourmet products, reheated and served – as would be the case on board if the dishes are approved after the tasting. The new menus, which can be enjoyed in SWISS First and SWISS Business from March 2020 at the earliest, reflect the ingredients Swissness and regionality, Mediterranean and exoticism.
Today, four experts are responsible for reproducing the new seasonal menus: Dennis Puchert (Head of Executive Development at Gate Gourmet), Philipp Dischinger, Kim Ang Svay (both Development Chefs at Gate Gourmet), and Adrian Reimann (Head of Recipe Development at Hiltl). Each of the four chefs brings his own exciting background to the collaboration. Kim, Philipp and Dennis all come from the world of high-end gastronomy. Kim’s previous experience includes being a sous-chef at the Sheraton Hotel before he was asked to share his expertise with Gate Gourmet; Philipp had already demonstrated his skills in the kitchens of the Dolder Grand and the Rigiblick Hotels before making the change to Gate Gourmet two years ago, where he has been able to allow his fascination for aviation and the logistics behind it to flourish; Dennis spent 12 years developing his expertise in gourmet kitchens, becoming the youngest chef in Switzerland to receive a Michelin star before following his desire for change by becoming the Head of Executive Development Switzerland at Gate Gourmet three years ago. Adrian came fresh to Hiltl in February 2019 as Head of Recipe Development and Food & Beverage (F&B). His earlier experience includes being a food consultant for Betty Bossi and Coop, and he was also a member of the Swiss National Culinary Team. The collaboration in the test kitchen is running smoothly. While Kim, Dennis and Adrian complete a test dish, together, Philipp is working away in the background to prepare the next steps.
So how does Gate Gourmet check the suitability of a dish for being prepared at an altitude of over 10,000 metres – in its test kitchen? As far as the taste is concerned, the conditions on board present no limitations. It is not possible to generalise what is known as the tomato juice effect, which states that certain flavours or spices become stronger or weaker at altitude, explains Philipp. The pressure in modern aircraft today no longer affects the flavour of a dish, because models such as the Boeing 777 are designed so the atmosphere contains more oxygen, which is why the taste experience on board is the same as on the ground. So dishes can be “seasoned normally”, although the logistical process may influence the chosen cooking method. Not all types of preparation are as successful on board as on the ground. For instance, fried food will quickly absorb other odours. Cooling and then reheating a dish before serving changes the consistency of the food. So you always have to ask yourself whether offering something like French fries on board really does add a benefit if the end result, or experience, is never going to be as enjoyable as in the kitchen at Gate Gourmet.
“So what about current food trends and their influence on the new menu suggestions?” I ask the chefs. Thanks to its vegetarian, and partly vegan dishes, Hiltl is already “well on trend”, replies Adrian. Dishes can be adjusted to various nutritional preferences in the preparation by omitting or reducing certain ingredients, such as salt, sugar and fat. However, even in the implementation of new food trends, the menus always remain true to Hiltl’s gastronomic line and to the SWISS brand. After all, the idea is for one and the same vegetarian option to appeal to and delight a wide range of palates on board.
Sandra Schirmeier, Head of F&B at Hiltl, pops into the kitchen – it’s nearly time to start tasting. Friendly greetings all around, with kisses for everyone: instance evidence of the harmonious partnership between the companies. The noise level in the test kitchen goes up a little just before the dishes are served. Could it be that the chefs are perhaps becoming a little tense? Serious concentration as the finishing touches are added to the presentations. A sharp tap against the underside of a plate to perfectly distribute the food; even a slice of lemon is quite literally shown in the best light.
The team of experts waits in an adjoining room for Adrian to present the menu suggestions, after which it’s time for the tasting to begin. Adrian takes part in the tasting at the table, while Philipp and Dennis are busy in the background preparing each plate. The sample-sized dishes are served successively, to the accompaniment of much enthusiastic discussion amongst the participants. There is plenty of praise from Hiltl for the freshness and quality of the products used by Gate Gourmet, but also a certain amount of concern regarding the more intense level of spiciness resulting from the different ingredients used in the two kitchens.
However, all signs of tension have disappeared by the end of the tasting session. There is much laughter, and everyone is happy with the innovations in the menus that have been presented. Each of the four dishes per class is given a thumbs up. Now it’s time to get to work on perfecting the wordings, seasoning and ingredients over the coming days, weeks and months. And what is the verdict of the Gate Gourmet cooking team? Philipp states confidently that in the past, Hiltl has suggested dishes for SWISS that would be far more complex to prepare and present on board. In reply to the closing question of whether he was happy with how the day has gone, Dennis is absolutely matter-of-fact about it all: “If the customer is happy, then I am too”.
Text: Livia Cadalbert