When British Airways set out to create its limited-edition Olympics menu, it turned to culinary experts and scientists to help with its Height Cuisine initiative. Designed by Simon Hulstone, the Olympics menu will be served to 3 million passengers on select flights between July and September.
Chefs who create in-flight menus face many challenges, from the logistics of creating meals that can be transported, chilled, reheated and plated in air, to environmental factors that affect taste like lighting, pressurized cabins, and dehydration. The average person loses about 30 percent of his or her taste at cruising altitude, according to British Airways, so the airline's scientists are currently examining exactly how high altitude affects taste.
"Airline food doesn’t have to be poor," said Lynn McClelland, British Airways’ head of catering. "We do not accept that airline food has to be mediocre."
But food that tastes fantastic on the tarmac does not necessarily have the same flavor in-flight. Salty items turn bland and acidic flavors are more intense, while sweet ingredients retain much of the same flavor profile. Spices like curries work well, but the altitude brings out the flavor of the spice rather than the heat.
Then there’s logistics. Beef filet does well while sirloin dries out, soft cheeses like Brie come across as bland, and pale sauces like Alfredo look unappetizing in cabin light. Instead, Gwendal Hamon, British Airways’ food and beverage menu design manager, recommends recipes that call for items that won’t face in-flight flavor dilution, like fresh herbs, cracked pepper, and lemon zest.
To combat the culinary challenges, Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal started exploring ingredients that are high in umami, a savory flavor known as the "fifth taste" that occurs naturally in foods, such as seaweed, tomatoes, mackerel, and Parmesan cheese.
The results are a continually evolving and carefully curated menu, including a handful of wines and four cheeses selected from hundreds of contenders that have now made it onto British Airways’ planes.
Created with Blumenthal's help, all four new Olympics menus include the starter, mackerel dressed on a pickled cucumber carpaccio with sourdough croutes, and a dessert of chilled chocolate fondant with a salted caramel liquid center.
The dishes are inspired by the airline’s menus dating back to 1948, the last time the Olympic Games were held in London. As food was rationed at the time of the last London games, ingredients that were indigenous and plentiful, such as ox cheek and fish, played an important part in people’s diet during those years.
Fish, along with items rich in umami, have been incorporated into the Olympics menu, with some dishes reinvented for a modern day audience. One old-school dish on the airline’s 1948 menu, braised beef chasseur with young carrots and chateau potatoes, has been updated to potted braised beef with a potato and horseradish topping, served with cabbage, baby carrots, and roasted shallots with a rich jus.
To complement the menu, there is a specially commissioned on-board soundtrack, which features music and commentary from iconic British moments from previous Olympic Games.