Behind the scenes of airline catering with Vietnam Airlines and Servair

An event organized by Vietnam Airlines to present its business class catering offer was also an opportunity to learn more about the world of airline catering from Servair’s staff.

It was at the lovely Hotel M Social in Paris that Vietnam Airlines invited a few people to talk about its long-haul business class menu.

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At this point I’m wondering how I’m going to come up with a coherent article on the subject of “I ate on the ground what Vietnam Airlines serves in flight” but in the end the discussion with the people from Vietnam Airlines and their supplier Servair will teach us a lot about the world of airline catering and what goes on behind the scenes.

It’s time to sit down to eat.

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Vietnam Airlines business class menu

Today’s menu is inspired by the menu actually served in-flight at the moment on the Vietnamese airline.

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I say “inspired” because the menu offered on board is richer. Indeed, Vietnam Airlines offers a choice of 4 main courses in flight, which is quite rare, as many airlines are content with 3 and sometimes artificially inflate the offer by adding a vegetarian dish.

That said, it’s understandable that for logistical reasons it was impossible to offer a choice of 4 courses in this rather unusual configuration, in a hotel with more participants than there are passengers in a business class cabin and only one or two people to plate the dishes.

Today we’ll have a choice of Charlemagne beef tournedos with a creamy port wine sauce, rosemary potatoes and snow peas in olive oil, or scallops in a spicy imperial sauce, sautéed vegetables and steamed rice.

I was referring to the logistical constraints on the service in these special conditions, and rightly so. In fact, there are two schools of thought when it comes to business class service in the airline industry.

On many airlines, the food is delivered in casserole dishes, reheated on board and served as is to the customer.

Vietnam Airlines has opted for greater sophistication, with ingredients shipped separately, reheated and then left to the cabin crew to plate. They are given a step-by-step guide and a photo of the finished dish to give them an idea of the desired look.

The result is infinitely more beautiful than if the dish were served in a casserole dish, but this obviously requires much more work on the part of the staff.

We won’t hide the fact that at Travelguys we prefer this option, and find it hard to consider as premium an airline that simply heats up casserole dishes.

We also had a demonstration by a Servair chef who showed us the work done by the flight attendants in the galley so that a beautiful plate comes to you in the plane.

Approximately one minute per dish, with precise, controlled movements. The ingredients are laid out in such a way as to require a minimum of gesture, especially since the staff in the galley have very limited space in which to plate the dishes.

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There’s one last point worth mentioning before we sit down to eat, and it concerns economy class passengers. Vietnam Airlines is one of the few airlines to serve only fresh food in economy. Here too, there are two schools of thought: frozen dishes that are reheated on board, and fresh dishes.

According to the people at Servairil, there are less than 5 airlines serving fresh meals in economy on departure from Roissy, all of them obviously Asian, and Vietnam Airlines is one of them. And some of the most prestigious airlines you would spontaneously think of are not among them.

It’s time to sit down to eat…

Business class lunch on Vietnam Airlines

The tray that awaits us at the table includes starter, butter, salad and toast (a choice of bread is also available).

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Note that the salt and pepper are in real salt and pepper shakers and not in the vulgar plastic containers that unfortunately still exist elsewhere. The same goes for butter served in a dish and not in an aluminum tub (yes, that still exists in business class).

Last but not least, the cheese is not brought with the starter, to save the staff some extra effort.

All of which turned out to be very good, with a special mention for the excellent smoked salmon.

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As for the salad, in addition to being visually successful and very colorful, it was also quite tasty.

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Next, the main course.

My tablemate had the charlemagne beef, of which I’m sharing a photo.

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I didn’t taste it, but he said it was delicious.

As for me, I chose the scallops.

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A comment common to both dishes: the visual is very beautiful.

Then I was very curious to taste on the ground a dish intended to be eaten in flight. We all know that our taste changes at altitude in a pressurized cabin, and that a delicious dish on the ground can be totally tasteless in flight. Much to my dismay, I find that some of the hallmarks of French gastronomy are not at all suitable for consumption in the air, such as foie gras to name but one.

On the other hand, spicier cuisines are much more palatable at 36,000 feet, where I find French cuisine less to its advantage than on the ground.

So I was thinking that this Asian dish would have more pronounced flavors on the ground than in the air, perhaps even too much so. All that was left to do was to taste it to check.

First comment: the scallops are perfectly cooked and not too rubbery, as it happens too often.

The rice is also perfectly cooked.

As for the rest, it’s perfectly spicy for my taste and obviously for that of one of the other guests. Which, in my opinion, means a little too spicy for some. Similarly, I found the sauce a little too salty (although I like salt).

I wanted to check my impressions with the Servair chef who was officiating, and he confirmed: the saltiness is caused by the soy sauce, and indeed, in flight, the perception is much more balanced. And if it were less strong on the ground, it would be bland in the air. Evidence if needed.

All in all, I found this dish delicious.

Cheese and dessert follow, in a more classic style.

However, a few of us will linger on after the meal, which will be an opportunity to have an informal and very interesting chat with the Servair people. It was totally unexpected and very instructive.

Airline catering facts and anecdotes

Let’s start by introducing the protagonists. Servair is therefore a company specializing in airline catering, originally a subsidiary of Air France, which created it in 1971, and part of gategroup since 2016.

The company works with 70% of the airlines departing from Roissy. It operates in 16 countries and 22 airports, serving 110,000 meals a day.

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Here are just a few of the details gleaned from the exchange.

Menus are generally renewed every 2 to 3 years. The menu currently offered by Vietnam Airlines is a little older, which can be explained by the COVID and the fact that the airlines logically did not renew their menus during this period.

You’ll be thinking that with a new menu every 3 years, frequent flyers must be getting tired of the same dishes all the time.

Let’s not forget that the airlines offer a choice of several dishes, smaller in economy than in business, of course. In our case, with the 4 dishes Vietnam Airlines offers in business class, there’s plenty to do except if you travel a lot.

But in fact, when we talk about a menu, we’re talking about a set of cycles. A cycle is an offer of four dishes for a given period. 3 months in the case of Vietnam Airlines.

So in fact Vietnam Airlines has 4 menus with 4 dishes to choose from in business class that rotate every 3 months.

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And to ensure that a person who always travels at the same time of year doesn’t always come across the same dishes (e.g. the person who goes on vacation to Vietnam every summer), the cycles don’t follow each other in regular succession.

For example, after completing cycles 1, 2, 3 and 4, Vietnam Airlines will restart on cycle 2 to create an offset.

Fresh or frozen

As we have seen, airlines can choose between fresh and frozen meals. While in business class this is not an issue, in economy you have almost no chance of finding an airline that offers fresh food. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and Vietnam Airlines is proud to be one of them.

Production lead times

As you can imagine, all this requires impeccable logistics: airlines place their orders 48 hours before the flight, and adjustments can be made up to 24 hours before. Then it’s more complicated to make upgrades, as there’s no guarantee that the dishes can be prepared.

Hot dishes are prepared 48 hours before the flight, cold dishes the day before.

There’s no other way: there are cycles to be respected at certain temperatures.

It all depends on the airline: some order a certain quantity and pay for what they’ve ordered, while others always ask for x% more to have more flexibility at the last minute, even if this means having extra dishes to throw away.

Vegetarian isn’t that cheap

One answer to one of our questions surprised us: vegetarian dishes don’t cost any less to produce than normal dishes.

In fact, if the raw material is cheaper, they require more labor (peeling, washing, etc.) and work to make them attractive.

Logistical issues

Logistics are key in catering. At Roissy airport, for example, Servair has direct access to the runways, which comes at a price, but means it can respond very quickly to last-minute requests, which is not the case for all caterers at the hub.

At some airports, production centers can be far away from catering centers, adding further constraints and removing flexibility.

Finally, some airports in countries with less developed infrastructures have no catering services, so the airlines make do as best they can, sometimes asking hotels to prepare the food.

Bottom line

The service offered by Vietnam Airlines in business class is really of a high standard, and the airline is quite demanding in terms of the constraints it imposes on its suppliers (number of dishes, fresh dishes, etc.).

But beyond that, when you’re enjoying a meal in flight, you’re not aware of all the logistics involved, the work of the crew to prepare the dishes, the constraints and the collaboration that must exist between the airline and its supplier.

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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