Like me, I’m sure most of you have sat in an aircraft on your way somewhere and had a good moan about the food. “It’s too salty/not salty enough”. “These scrambled eggs don’t taste like proper eggs”. “This croissant tastes like cardboard”. “They ran out of my choice of main course”. It’s practically a universal sport to complain about airline food – and to be fair, a lot of it is pretty grim. But I always try and keep some perspective by reminding myself that I am in a slim metal tube hurtling through the air at close to the speed of sound, 35,000 feet above the planet, and not only am I not dead, but somebody is offering me some food. If you think about it that way, airline food is nothing short of a miracle.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited behind the scenes to see how this particular miracle happens, and all the preparation and training that has to happen before a smiling Singapore Airlines crew member can offer you a chicken satay and a Singapore Sling at cruising altitude. In Singapore, all the food for Singapore Airlines is prepared and packaged by SATS (Singapore Airlines Terminal Services) the chief ground-handling and in-flight catering service provider at Singapore Changi Airport. This sprawling but unremarkable building on the airport perimeter produces over 20,000,000 meals per year and provides a fascinating insight into the logistics of prepping and plating food on an industrial scale and making sure it gets into the right aeroplane on the right day at the right time. Of course, not just anybody can stroll into SATS – security is tight and we all had to submit our passports to gain entry. Once inside, the focus shifts from security to hygiene and we were all handed some super-sexy (not!) white rubber shoes; kimonos to wear over our clothes; and hair nets. Once suitably attired, there was one final barrier to entry: the air shower. These sealed cubicles fitted with multiple air nozzles are more commonly seen at the entrance to research laboratories where a dust-free environment is essential, and show just how seriously hygiene in the kitchens is taken. It’s an unusual (and slightly ticklish!) sensation as multiple jets of air blast dust and other particles off you from head to toe before finally being allowed to step into the food prep area.
Our guide explained to us that SATS not only produces the meals for Singapore Airlines but also for many other companies in Singapore, such as Starbucks, the army, hospital kitchens – and even coleslaw for KFC! To keep the risk of contamination to a minimum, the building is strictly divided into dedicated-use spaces. There is a de-cartooning are so that any pests that might have come into the building in a carton of fruit, for example, can be contained and dealt with. From there, the food goes to individual storage (for example, there are separate cooler rooms for pork, beef, chicken, fish and shellfish) to minimise the possibility of cross-contamination. From there, the food can be distributed to a series of separate kitchens including the hot kitchen, the Muslim kitchen, the Indian kitchen, the Japanese kitchen – and even special dim sum and satay kitchens! Our guide explained that SATS uses both historical data about food consumption as well as predictive software to plan what foods need to be prepared and loaded for a particular flight. From Tokyo to Singapore, the chicken katsu might be the most popular and so staff will ensure that there is proportionately more chicken available on this flight. Of course, the best option is for passengers to choose their own meals in advance using Singapore Airlines’ “Book the Cook” facility (read all about this amazing service here). To ensure the highest level of quality, all new dishes are tasted in a hypobaric simulated cabin environment comprising a main cabin and a galley, separated from the rest of the building by an airlock. Because your taste buds are affected by the unique atmosphere of a plane (low air pressure, low humidity) the airlock is sealed and the cabin is made to simulate the low air pressure of an aircraft cabin flying at 30,000 feet. Food is then served and tasted in conditions as close to an actual flying plane as possible. That’s dedication!
Although we could not visit all the kitchens, we did spend some time in the hot kitchen which is an impressive hive of steam as well as human and machine activity. Little conveyor belts carry pots and pans around the vast space; workers stir vast vats of rice and vegetables; in one corner a large round machine that looks rather like a rotating escargot platter makes perfectly round omelettes every time; masses of just-poached eggs float in an ice-bath to prevent their yolks from hardening; and in another corner a woman places dozens of prime cuts of steak (doubtlessly headed for First Class!) on a heated conveyor belt that gives them picture-perfect grill marks. Because all the food on board has to be reheated in microwaves, all the caramelisation has to be done here and food is then placed in a blast-chiller to arrest the cooking process before it can be sent for plating. It’s all rather mesmerising in its scale and efficiency, rather like a large movable art installation with colour coding and labels everywhere. We also paid a visit to the charming Chef Hafiz in his dedicated satay kitchen. Singapore Airlines takes their satay Very Seriously- not only is there a carefully tweaked recipe, but all the cubes of meat are threaded onto skewers by hand. And when you take off from London on a Singapore Airlines flight, the satay that you are served were made in Singapore and flown to London prior to your departure – chef told us that none of the satay served aboard is picked up anywhere else other than from SATS. And I can vouch for the fact that is astonishingly good as we tasted it on the spot as well as enjoying it on our flights to and from Singapore!
Once all the food has been prepared and blast-chilled, it then has to head to our next destination: the plating areas (separate areas for Business/First and Economy) where the vats of, say, mashed potato have to be parcelled out into the individual portions that land on the tray tables in front of us at 30,000 feet. Stretched out before us were long stainless steel tables labelled with particular flights or sectors and covered in little foil trays in various stages of being filled with noodles, vegetables, curry, prawns and even a full English breakfast. Even the fanciest of the First Class food is packaged into foil containers but is later transferred to proper crockery during the flight. What surprised me the most about the plating area was how labour-intensive it was rather than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style machines filling the trays, it was good old fashioned human hands doing everything from scooping out the mashed potato to the final sprinkle of chive garnish. By this stage, my mind was truly boggled by the sheer number of people who had been involved to get my little tray of “chicken-or-beef” to my seat on the plane! Once all the meals a packaged, they are sent to their final destination: the trolley building room. This is the room where those little elbow-bashing trolleys from the planes are brought to be filled up for a flight – first the whole tray is built up (e.g. with cutlery, crockery, water, milk, sugar, yoghurt, jam etc) and then the correct numbers of cooked meals are added to the trolley before it is reunited with the correct plane.
But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating and soon we were back where we started, out of our sexy white kimonos and sitting down to a lunch composed of various dishes from the Book the Cook menu options. We started with grilled tuna loin with yuzu jelly and baby vegetables; as well as a white onion and thyme soup with sauteed mushroom & Proscuitto ham. I particularly liked the lemon-yellow yuzu jelly with the tuna – such a taste explosion! We then moved on to a couple of Singapore classics: chicken & beef satay served with traditional accompaniments of fresh cucumber and onion; and a spicy, rich and satisfying beef rendang. There was a hugely impressive bowl of Singapore chilli crab (messy but fabulous) served with deep-fried Chinese buns which sound wrong but taste oh-so-right. A steaming bowl of beef hor fun was tender and flavourful and the cod marinated in XO sauce would give many restaurant incarnations of blackened miso cod a run for their money. For dessert we shared three local favourites: lemon grass Jello with grains of barley suspended in it; “snow in the tropics” (Jello cubes in custard with ice-cream – real nursery food!); and my favourite, the bright yellow pomelo and sago with mango. All the food was served o the same gorgeous custom-designed Givenchy crockery that is used in the Business Class cabins on board.
So having seen how Singapore Airlines meals are prepared and packaged, after lunch it was time to take a closer look at how the crew who serve these meals and fly the plane are trained. A short car journey from SATS brings you to the Singapore Airline Training Centre (SATC), the hub from where all the airline’s flight crew, cabin crew and administrative/management personnel are trained. In addition to management development ant IT training, this is also a fully-equipped flight school including eight flight simulators including pretty much every model of aircraft in the airline’s fleet. Pilots not only have to learn to fly but they also have to do a full course of study to convert from flying from one type of aircraft to another, and they need to spend a certain number of hours on the flight simulators every few months to practise emergency procedures and to maintain their technical skills. Sadly, we could not see the simulators on the day we were visiting as they were all full – but next time! Cabin crew have their own training programme – 15 rigorous weeks during which they learn about service etiquette; safety procedures and announcements; food and wine appreciation; and advanced grooming. We were fortunate to be able to sit on on one of the grooming classes where a group of young men and women were being put through their paces by their humorous but firm trainer, herself a former cabin attendant. There is a lot of legacy behind the image of the Singapore Airlines cabin crew – the Singapore Girl became a marketing icon for the airline in the early seventies as the epitome of elegance, charm and service excellence. Today, strict grooming rules ensure that cabin crew adhere to the same high standards. Female cabin crew members are individually assessed and assigned a colour palette of eye and lip colours – with nails to match lips; and all crew members have to adhere to hairstyle requirements. For men, this means that hair may not touch the ears, collar or eyebrows; and for women, there are five approved hair styles (bun, French plait, French roll, bob and pixie cut). This may sound petty, but it promotes a uniformly elegant corporate image as well as minimising the chances of stray hairs in food.
But before you think that being a Singapore Airlines cabin crew member is all about the hair and makeup, you are reminded that this is only one small aspect of their training. Our next stop was the simulated aircraft passenger cabins where all cabin crew must learn the etiquette and practicalities of serving food and drink to passengers, in teams of two sharing a narrow trolley, in the cramped confines of an aircraft aisle. We were allowed to sit in on a class where trainee cabin crew practised service on their classmates while more experienced crew watched over and critiqued them. This was also where we learnt that you can tell the seniority of a cabin crew member by the colour of their made-to-measure sarong kebaya (the Pierre Balmain-designed batik two-piece uniform that all female cabin crew wear): blue for flight stewardess; green for leading stewardess; red for chief stewardess; and burgundy for in-flight supervisor. Male cabin crew wear navy blue suits with ties in the same four shades as above to designate seniority. There are mock-up training cabins for every type of aeroplane in the Singapore Airlines fleet, including their amazing first class cabins on the Airbus A380 – which is where you’ll see me sitting below!
From there, we were taken to see probably the most serious side of the cabin crew training, where they learn how to handle emergency situations such as fire, water landing and emergency evacuation, as well as first aid including CPR. There is a purpose built training room where the use of fire-fighting equipment is taught and practised, as well as a replica aircraft fuselage to practise deploying emergency slides and performing a mock ground evacuation of the plane. All cabin crew have to do emergency evacuation drills, including sliding down the inflatable slides, during their training and at regular annual intervals afterwards. There is also an aeroplane cabin mock-up above an indoor training pool for the purpose of practising emergency slide-raft launching and boarding. Various open sea conditions can be simulated by means of a wave generator, and night-time conditions can also be simulated. The cabin does not appear to be that far above the water… but when you stand in the cabin looking down at the water, it seems a lot higher! All cabin crew have to jump out of the cabin and into the pool wearing their kebaya uniforms to ensure than they can swim to the escape rafts and clamber aboard while in uniform. It made me feel very reassured to see the extensive and rigorous safety training that all cabin crew have to undergo.
All in all, it was a fascinating peek into a world that passengers seldom get to see. Earlier this year, Singapore Airlines also invited a limited number of members of the public to see what happens behind the scenes as part of the 50 year anniversary of Singapore – keep an eye out for more such opportunities in the the future! Singapore Airlines flies four times daily from London Heathrow and daily from Manchester to Singapore. See singaporeair.com for the latest offers and to book. For visitors travelling to destinations beyond Singapore, include a Stopover Holiday when booking your Singapore Airlines flights to save money on accommodation and admission to over 15 popular attractions. Rates start from just £19pppn, offering total savings over £220. You can also keep up to date on the Singapore Airlines Facebook page Facebook.com/SingaporeAir.
Click here to read my detailed review of flying Singapore Airlines Business Class from London to Singapore.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this visit as a guest of Singapore Airlines but was not required to write a positive review. I retained full editorial control and all opinions expressed are my own.
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