Kudos to you, Skychef: The Casino of the Skies

September 20, 2014

A German firm has found a niche in the market and has begun a delivery service for airplane food, you can read the full story here:


Hence I have to admit my dirty little secret: I love airplane dining – and not just the meals but the entire experience.

Now – I hear your disbelief and I understand it. I was once like you. I loathed airline food and was the guy who picked up some smoked salmon and Belgian water crackers at the “Stereotypical Stuff from Seattle” airport gift shop, waved off the flight attendant, and with a wonderful feeling of superiority dug into my self-catered meal. That was a mistake.

I’ve traveled an absurd amount over the years and thus have had the opportunity to experience the entire cornucopia of sky-based dining. And I use the word “cornucopia” advisedly – I believe it was KLM that once had an actual cornucopia filled with different chocolates in Business Class (maybe it was back in the day on Sabena – it was a decade or so ago). Aeroflot serves a brilliant kosher meal – a splendid broiled white fish with salmon roe caviar. Pakistan International’s business class meals are always spicy and filling and of such quality that for any westerner unfamiliar with the digestive requirements of South Asian cuisine there will be no extra trips to the on board lavatory. Singapore Airlines – well, what’s not to love? Sure it’s a pseudo-democratic authoritarian state but they damn well know how to run an airline. There is some genuinely excellent food served on planes these days.

In fact there is a pretty robust correlation between how undemocratic a country is and the quality of its food – the more democracy, the worse the cuisine (see: Singapore, Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi – in ascending order of cuisine and descending order of political rights – North Korea is the outlier).

But I digress – it’s not just the food. It’s the risk, the gamble, the thrill of anticipation. As someone with a reasonable knowledge of statistics and a deep, probably pathological aversion to risk, I don’t gamble. I just don’t enjoy it. It’s a waste of money. For me, airplane food fills the need for that frisson of excitement without actually wagering anything of actual value. Permit me to explain …

So you’ve boarded Korean Air (fine firm, excellent service) for yet another flight from San Francisco to Beijing via Seoul – 10 hours to go. Following take off you make some quiet personal judgments as to the neighboring passengers, have a brief conversations with Mr. and Mrs. Li who are on their way home to Shanghai after a few weeks with their son and his family in Portland, and you turn on a movie and have 9.5 hours to kill. Reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” and that horrible Montreal comedy program “Just For Laughs” – it’s a televised argument for why Quebec should never become independent – probably aren’t going to cut it as regards one’s need for amusing distraction. But the meal is coming. There will be two – dinner and breakfast with a snack in between. This is where your focus should be. This should be your center of attention. For you are no longer on a plane my friend. No – you have transported yourself to another world. You are in the casino of the skies. Vegas without the despair. Macau without the corrupt local government officials. Monte Carlo sans Eurotrash.

To novice players, the meal is basically low risk roulette. Red or black? Chicken or beef? Other players make their choices. The time runs out as the stewardess comes closer and closer. You try to get a peak of what is under the tin foil wrapping or you listen for the groans as the losers express their regret in a myriad of languages and cultural distinct grunts of disdain. Finally – the moment has arrived, and the decision is upon you. This is some serious drama.

While not a fan of this version of the game, there’s still some appeal there. There is the possibility of a lovely bit of diced chicken in a well prepared oyster sauce with boiled rice OR the horror of overcooked, plasma textured beef with vaguely green colored legumes. Even if you lose (the beef – never go with the beef or God forbid anything referred to as “lasagna,” it’s a fool’s bet – the house knows you’ve got images of Omaha steaks in your head and they are playing to win or at least avoid bankruptcy) there might be a decent pastry or some fruit. Kiwi is for some reason omnipresent. Almond jelly is a personal favorite of mine on Asian airlines. And there are still the “slot machines” left to play – will they give you more bread? an extra bottle of wine? My personal favorite – “Is there any way I could get a glass of port from up in business class?” (Smile and polite expression with a hand on the shoulder is the standard form here)

Conversely, to serious players – “the pros” – such as myself – the rule is: never take the standard meal. That’s a poor man’s game. We’re playing Baccarat over here. The specialty meal is on a spectrum which is much wider. An executive at Astana Airlines (Kazakhstan’s main carrier, run by British executives) once mentioned to me how much they hate the specialty meal thing. Each one costs around $30 and this problematizes their margins. In my mind, the idea of screwing over an airline should be sufficient for anyone to order the meal – at the worst you have made up for any extra fees, on a good day it’s a splendid dining experience. Moreover, you are served first – you make your bet and there’s no going back.

Still, there are some downsides – bigger rewards, but bigger risks. With the kosher meal there is always the fear that if the plane is hijacked the first person the terrorists are going to go for is the guy who has a paper trail to love of Israel. I doubt they will buy my explanation even if I show them the rosary I invariably carry in my briefcase. At the same time, sometimes the specialty meal is downright disgusting – in one of my worst losses I one was served gefilte fish. A professional low point but I still pick myself up and sit back at the tray table for one more round.

Many people feel that because of their own religious or cultural identity they cannot do this. I’m a white Catholic guy and I have eaten more kosher, halal, and (when I am feeling dangerous) Hindu vegetarian meals than anyone I know. On a flight from Hong Kong to LA my seatmate – of the Jewish faith – noticed that at snack time I got a piping hot pastrami sandwich with deli mustard while he suffered through ramen noodles with boiling water. Upon his inquiry as to what he assumed was a shared religion I simply said: “While I am not of your faith, I do appreciate your cuisine. Christians like deli meat too.” We’re still in touch.

So next time you are flying – try it. Adjust your perspective. Order in advance. And learn to love the excitement which comes from airplane food. Randomness can be fun. And on occasion – filling and delicious.


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