High-flying dining






The way we eat when we travel is changing – and for the better. From a game-changing new restaurant at Gatwick to smoked Scandinavian venison on Norwegian flights, meet your next travel dishes.

Golden pieces of home-cured haddock with a crunchy potato crisp batter are served atop a dramatically imagined seascape of squid ink-coloured dehydrated tapioca sprinkled with edible “sand” (made from shrimps and seaweed) and dotted with green herbs, lemon ketchup, tartare sauce and delicate blue borage flowers.

While it might sound like something from a Michelin-starred menu, the only place you’ll find this playful take on fish and chips is in the South Terminal of London’s Gatwick Airport, at the newly opened Grain Store Gatwick.

The restaurant, bar and café – headed up by London’s French-born celebrity chef Bruno Loubet – is the airport’s largest dining venue, with space to seat up to 250 diners, and it’s the antithesis of the soggy fries and dry sanwiches many associate with airports. “There’s a big change coming with how people eat when they travel by air,” says Loubet. “Hopefully, we are a part of it.”

Eating on the go has come a long way since the first airline meal – a three-shilling lunchbox containing sandwiches and fruit – was served on 11 October 1919 on a flight between London and Paris. Things looked good during the 1950s, when white tablecloths and silver service were the norm, but as the Golden Age of Travel drew to a close there was a steady decline in what was on offer, and airport food and inflight meals developed a reputation as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Grain Store Gatwick is just the latest in a gourmet trend that has taken over airports over the past few years, just as airlines have been investing in pioneering research into  how we eat when we’re actually in the air.

At Geneva Airport’s Terminal 1, for example, travellers get sweeping views over the runway while dining on duck foie gras at Altitude, the French restaurant from Michelin-starred chefs Gilles Dupont and Thomas Byrne; or at Bubbles Seafood & Wine Bar in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, you can try fresh oysters, lobster and champagne beside a tropical aquarium.

Scandinavian airports have looked beyond bland comfort food, too, for something more alternative: at Stockholm Arlanda Airport’s Tro, Hopp & Kaffe, a café-tattoo studio run by Swedish tattoo artists Salong Betong, you get fair-trade coffee and tattoos from world-renowned artists. Over the past few years, Copenhagen Airport has hosted »  several pop-ups, including a fine-dining restaurant with three of the country’s top chefs, and a social dining concept with chef duo I’m a Kombo.

The booze is getting better, too. In Munich there’s Airbrau, Europe’s only airport restaurant with an on-site brewery, while next month Gatwick will open its own gin distillery and bar. For those who don’t fancy an artisan gin, Gatwick will also open a new Floga lounge, which offers a 20-minute pre-flight yoga routine designed by Instagram-famous yogi Shona Vertue.

But the biggest news is the Grain Store, which is almost unprecedented in its size and the scale of its ambition. In London, chef Loubet is best known for bringing vegetables into the spotlight at his award-winning King’s Cross restaurant, also called Grain Store, where vegetables have a starring role.

The new venture is translating Grain Store’s ethos to the airport, where it’s anticipated the team will serve upwards of 800 meals every day. “We really like the idea being healthier, more colourful and seasonal in an airport rather than the usual comfort foods,” says Loubet.

So, what’s on the menu? “We realise that you have to have certain things on your menu in an airport,” says Loubet. “We just do them a bit differently – showing diners a little bit of the Grain Store idea, and then hopefully they will come back for more.” So, there’s the expected airport fare of burgers, shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips, but it’s all been given a Grain Store twist. As well as the revolutionary “fish in chips”, the lasagne will be made predominantly with seasonal vegetables and just a touch of meat.

It’s at the bar, though, where things get really interesting. Here, Loubet’s team will be serving up some of Grain Store’s renowned cocktails (many made with seasonal veg) alongside a bar menu that feels more “World’s 50 Best” than airport. There are mussels served in edible “shells” made from potato flour and squid ink, with a side of kelp “sponge”, and a “cottage garden” of micro-vegetables planted in a petri dish of beetroot hummus and edible dirt.

And, as at Grain Store King’s Cross, there is an interest in locally sourced ingredients, with as much as possible sourced from within 40km of Gatwick. The “Gatwick sandwich”, for example, pairs a soft, Brie-like cheese sourced from a producer near the airport with a green tomato chutney – “That’s really British » to me,” says Loubet – on a honey rye bread made using local honey. “It is little things for now,” says Loubet. “But big things come from small things – we are putting a message out there, and if we find more local ingredients, that would be fantastic.”

Pulling all this off in an airport, however, is no easy task. Cooking equipment, such as knives, has to be counted morning and evening (and is susceptible to spot checks throughout the day by security); deliveries are strictly limited to one per day and handled by a third party, which makes organisation and anticipation of the day’s turnover imperative; and, everything on the menu must be able to be served within 15 minutes of a diner being seated.

If things are tricky on the ground, they only get more so in the air. At 35,000 feet, low humidity, cabin pressure, light, and even noise all impact on the way we experience food, making eating a meal onboard a very different experience to eating at ground level – and the challenges for chefs and menu planners considerable.

The first – and biggest – challenge to overcome is the environment inside an aircraft. The cabin is pressurised to 8,000 feet and humidity onboard a plane is between four and 15 per cent – less than half that of the Sahara Desert – meaning our sinuses close up, depriving us of our sense of smell and around 30 per cent of our sense of taste. Our taste buds also function differently, becoming drastically less sensitive to sweet and salty flavours, and more receptive to umami – the savoury flavour found in tomatoes, shellfish, seaweed and soy sauce.

“In years past, the solution to this was generally for airlines to up the salt content in food,” says Live Marie Aasheim, the head of inflight services at Norwegian. “These days, there’s more of a focus on healthier options, so we use generous amounts of different spices to get lots of flavour into the food.” On long-haul flights, for example, the current Nice & Tasty menu includes the option of fried salmon with tomato sauce, wheat berry pilaf, grilled vegatables and spinach – the herbs and spices in the pilaf pack a flavour punch, while the tomato sauce is rich in umami flavour and keeps the salmon moist.

Norwegian’s onboard menu, says Aasheim, also takes into account international food trends and differing cultural tastes, all of which are determined in tasting and brainstorming workshops held with the airline inflight services team and the catering and retail partners four times a year. During these meetings, the team discusses international food trends and feedback from the crew and passengers, all of which informs new items for the onboard menus.

Trends are just part of the picture, however, when planning meals. “We look at airline food as part of the inflight entertainment, and we use ingredients that we think can add to the dining experience,” says Tony DeMyers, the executive chef with Cookin, the Swedish company that creates Norwegian’s short-haul meals. “We tend to choose ingredients based on colour, texture and form if we feel they add to both aesthetic and taste. Or, we change existing ingredients to bring food and flavours to another level – like using blackened leeks to add a surprising colour, texture and taste.”

Tied into the idea of food as a kind of entertainment, onboard meals can also hint at what’s to come. On Norwegian’s long-haul flights, for example, Premium-class customers are served a three-course meal with options from each region Norwegian flies to – Scandinavia, the UK, North America and Asia. “This could be a Thai curry, smoked venison from Scandinavia, scones with clotted cream and jam from the UK or a New York strip steak,” says Casper Vedel Jensen, the regional executive chef from Gate Gourmet supplier of the airline’s long-haul meals. The addition of sauces – from hoisin and pineapple chilli to green pepper – helps to keep food moist, and therefore more flavoursome, in the dry cabin environment.

While scientific understanding has drastically improved the quality of onboard dining in recent years, conditions in the cabin are still challenging for chefs and menu-planners. Things, however, are looking good for the future. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliners (which Norwegian uses for long-haul flights) have been designed to improve the flying experience – including onboard dining. Better cabin pressurisation systems mean a higher humidity in the cabin of around 15 per cent, which makes it easier to smell and taste, engine noise is reduced, and there’s even lighting that makes food look more appetising. It seems we’re heading into a new Golden Age of Travel – one that tastes really, really good.

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