Feeding the Multitudes – at Sea and in the Air

loading Dessert spread during lunch at the Main Dining Room onboard Voyager of the Seas.

Large-scale food production involves complex processes ranging from menu-crafting and addressing a series of dietary needs, to ensuring safety and maintaining high quality in the food consumed. Even under normal and predictable circumstances, much can go wrong. Try doing all that at sea in a skyscraper-size cruise ship, or in the air, even in a budget aircraft. Making sure that nothing goes wrong becomes imperative. There, nothing can be left to chance.

Penang Monthly takes a look at how meals are prepared to serve a luxury cruise ship and for a low-cost airline.

Cruise Ship

Shipboard dining entails extremely detailed planning. And for Royal Caribbean International’s cruise ship, Voyager of the Seas, it all starts with the culinary logistics, i.e. food sourcing, quality checks and stockpiling the necessary supplies in anticipation of surprise spikes in demand, or riding out the hurricane and typhoon seasons.

Inventory manager Rajaselvan explains: “We have our shore side purchasing working very diligently together with the Culinary Corporate team in having all the food items contracted through a variety of different suppliers to meet specific culinary requirements.

“Our sourcing falls into two categories, one from local suppliers and the second, from Miami where we receive 70-80% of our frozen, bonded and dry goods in containers. For these goods, we will usually send our orders about 80 days in advance. With such a long lead period, analytical skills are essential to project and forecast our needs.”

The remaining 20% of dry, frozen and fresh produce, as well as dairy products, are sourced through Singaporean suppliers. “For Indonesian and Indian cuisines, however, we source from Penang for product authenticity,” adds executive chef Anil George.

Once the goods are delivered, thorough inspections are conducted by both men to ensure that the ingredients are the very best. Food items that fall below required standards are rejected, and a request is issued to the supplier for re-delivery.

A Voyager of the Seas chef during lunch service preparation.

In cases of emergency, food and beverage director Franz Litzner makes certain that an extra 20% of food items is stockpiled; and a separate menu created to meet demands for the hurricane and typhoon seasons.

Voyager of the Seas boasts a stable of 130 chefs and 60 galley stewards preparing food for 4,500 guests and 1,200 crew members per sailing. “This means that in 24 hours, we prepare up to 16,000 meals,” says Chef Anil.

To put things in perspective, the cruise ship goes through a mammoth 3,600 dozen fresh eggs, 8,391kg of chicken and 6,800 litres of milk during a week-long trip at sea.

“During the day, we mostly focus on plating, garnishing and dispatching as per daily operations. The production line starts moving at night. The breakfast team begins working as early as 4am, while the general team supporting lunch and dinner begins work at 8am. The main kitchen mainly prepares food for the Main Dining Room, the Windjammer Café, Café Promenade, and for our 1,200 crew members.”

Computer programmes are also used to assist with the levels of food production, besides maintaining consumption records for future cruises, says Litzner. “Our production line varies from one sailing to another. On the day of sailing, we ascertain the number of guests on board and adjust our production line accordingly,” adds Chef Anil.

But what happens to the leftover food? “We strive to ensure minimum wastage by analysing data collected over the years. The leftover food is used to prepare a midnight buffet for our crew members who work late hours and require late night supper or snacks,” says Chef Anil. The rest will be grounded, while some will be dried and incinerated. “Some are also disposed at sea, but this process is conducted according to strict environmental guidelines,” adds Litzner.

Low-cost Airline

The world’s first airline meal ever was served in 1919 on a Handley-Page flight from London to Paris – making the airline meal industry a stately 100 years old this year. On-board kitchens came next in the 1930s, and in the 1940s, frozen meals were introduced which widened considerably the variety of inflight food selections available.1

At AirAsia, the inflight menus Santan and T&Co are planned a year in advance, with special attention given to festival seasons like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas. “To showcase the flavours of the region and to reflect food trends, the Santan menu is also revamped every quarter; and to get the meals’ taste profiles just right, AirAsia’s Allstars of diverse backgrounds are recruited as food tasters,” says resident chef Calvin Soo.

All meals introduced to the airline must comply with the most stringent safety and hygiene standards, including the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), and the Halal certification. Other factors like observing the meals’ nutritional values, managing the weight and maintaining the quality of meals on a day-to-day basis are also taken into strict account.

“AirAsia’s inflight meals are typically prepared ready-to-eat in a HACCP-regulated commercial kitchen before they are blastchilled. The meals are then assembled in a temperature-controlled room, to be packaged in their respective containers and delivered via chilled delivery trucks over to AirAsia’s warehouse – about 15,000 meals are delivered to the warehouse daily for AirAsia Malaysia flights alone.

“Once at the warehouse, the inflight team checks the day’s delivery before the meals are placed in a chilled storeroom, where the temperature is kept between 2°C and 4°C. An hour before a flight, the meals are loaded onto airline carts to be transported to the aircraft in refrigerated trucks. This way, food wastage is avoided if a flight gets delayed,” explains Chef Calvin. To further minimise food wastage, a predictive system is used to assist in calculating passenger load, flight destination and analysis of food wastage on previous flights.

Guests enjoying Santan meals on board.

A popular inflight meal is Pak Naseer’s Nasi Lemak, which is available on all flights except AirAsia India ones. It sells an annual average of 2.8 million a year and more than 7,000 a day. “We also provide vegetarian options such as South Indian Delight on AirAsia India; Hyderabadi Biryani on AirAsia and AirAsia X Malaysia, and AirAsia Thailand; and Vegetable Curry on AirAsia Indonesia.

“Our meal planners study the characteristics of the people flying with us, as well as consumer trends. It also depends on the routes we fly to. Let’s say if it’s a route to China, we will load more Chicken Rice and less Nasi Lemak. When a flight returns from its destination, unsold meals are considered unsafe for consumption, and disposed of.”

AirAsia collaborates with the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs to support the government’s “Buy Malaysia Products” campaign, and Chef Calvin says Malaysia-sourced products make up half of Santan and T&Co menus. “We have also waived listing fees for more than 550 local businesses which are looking to expand their products on the airline’s platform.

“We have also collaborated with a string of local and international celebrity chefs. We are currently partnered with the non-governmental organisation RED and New York-based Thai celebrity chef Hong Thaimee to introduce the INSPI(RED) Burger, a Thai-American fusion burger to support the fight against AIDS.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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