Have you ever sat on an aeroplane and thought about how the tray of food in front of you got there? It’s something I hadn’t really ever considered, well not the scale of the operation required to put it there. I’d thought about the individual components of my meal, the bread roll, for example, wondering where it was baked. Otherwise, I was pretty oblivious to the fact that every single item presented to me was picked, prepared and placed in an incredible behind the scenes process, one I recently got to experience with Cathay Pacific at the companies headquarters in Hong Kong.
Cathay Pacific’s headquarters and catering operation are a short drive from Hong Kong airport and act as the hub of the brand’s worldwide operation. Cathay City as it’s known to the 23,000 odd employees is the beating heart, a multi-faceted facility offering everything you could imagine including a staff hotel, staff training centres with mock-up cabins, pilot training with full-size simulators, pilot preparation centres, flight briefing rooms as well as banking, grocery and dining options. Staff and crew from all over the world train and stay at Cathay City when they’re in Hong Kong, creating a tight-knit group of specialists from every arm of the company’s large operation.
Cathay’s catering subsidiary is a behemoth, supplying food and onboard products, like magazines, to over forty airlines including Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates and cargo and private jet services. They have a dedicated Kosher department, onsite bakery and extensive preparation network that covers 73,000m2 and has a daily capacity of 140,000 meals, or 310 flights. Current daily average sits at 83,000 meals processed by 1700 staff.
Every single aspect of the meal delivered to your Economy, Business or First Class seat has been carefully prepared, including the Economy Class omelette made on a specially designed rotating cooktop tended to by two chefs who do nothing but flip the perfect omelette.
Fruit is the biggest part of the operation, offered to all three classes and is carefully washed, sliced and diced by a team of forty odd before being transferred to various presentation dishes, depending on your class of travel. The bakery is extraordinary, with both sweet and savoury creations across a variety of cuisines and food requirements getting produced all day and night. If you order a special meal, it’s prepared in a special department by hand. All of the dishes are constructed with individually cooked ingredients, with staff fastidiously monitoring the protein to vegetable balance.
There is a level of automation to the trays, but it still requires staff to organise and prepare all the components beforehand. Water bottles have been designed to lie in a particular spot on the tray, Business and First Class cutlery has been pre-sorted and wrapped by hand. Then there’s the logistics of transferring the meals to the planes, reheating and serving them at 35,000 feet, ensuring they taste as they’re designed to. It’s a fascinating and well oil machined.
After our tour, we were joined for lunch by Aaron Claxton, Cathay’s Head of catering for a chat about the changing service, partnerships and future direction. Our discussion revolved heavily around the brand’s alcohol offering, covering the release of ‘Betsy’, the world’s first hand-crafted bottled beer brewed to be enjoyed at 35,000. Then moving to the expanding seasonal wine menu, now managed by a group in the UAE with final say had by an in-house panel headed up by Master of Wine Debra Meiburg. It was also interesting discussing Cathay’s relationship with Champagne house Krug and how their demand for product far outweighs their allocation, and how they are planning to adapt to that. Aaron’s insight into developing mutually beneficial brand partnerships and Cathay’s evolving new Business Class service, offering customisable dining options speak volumes about the brand’s quest to lead the field in innovation.
I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some incredible ‘money can’t buy’ experiences with TVG but my behind the scenes look at Cathay Pacific was certainly one of the most memorable. It’s incredible what goes into making an airline run smoothly, and it’s well worth appreciating next time you’re sitting in your chair, tucking into a Gluten Free special order meal or cursing a slight delay. As the customer, we only see the smallest tip of the iceberg.
For more information on Cathay Pacific dining head to their website.