Neil Perry looks back on the past 20 years and how he and his team took inflight dining to a whole new level.
Boarding a Qantas plane in a foreign country has always felt to me like stepping back onto home turf. From the familiar accents of the crew to their warm smiles, it’s immersive. It’s Australia.
So, 20 years ago, when I was asked to complement that service with a menu that tasted of home, I jumped at the chance. It’s hard to imagine a higher honour than working with our national carrier and it’s a role I have always believed comes with great responsibility.
Over the years the brief has expanded to include Qantas lounges and, more recently, the wine selection. It’s been quite a journey (both literally and figuratively) as we have strived to create the world’s best inflight food, wine and service. I used to think restaurant kitchens were tight but those plane galleys demanded a complete rethink of the movements required to construct a dish – same dance, smaller space!
There were other interesting challenges to overcome, from the change in pressure (which, among other things, can cause sauces to split) to limited equipment. Using the ideas and culinary integrity that are the backbone of our restaurants, we had to work creatively to make that appear on those plates in the sky. There have been a few firsts, too – for example, making vinaigrettes to order, individual salad service (as we do in the restaurants) and freshly scrambled eggs.
We create 600 new dishes a year – that’s nearly 12,000 since we began – and seek inspiration in all the things we see and do every day: the incredible cities we fly in and out of, the visits to the markets, the great restaurants we eat in and even the simple things my team of chefs may eat at home.
Twice a year I get together with my team at Qantas to create a catalogue of hundreds of delicious dishes that will work in the air. From this list, we compile balanced menus for each port, making sure that we have no duplications. We work hard to ensure that we make the most of the best ingredients and styles that each port offers but it can be quite a logistical challenge, as we try to match dishes to certain cities.
Once we’re happy with the menus, our team sets about perfecting the recipes. A workshop is held with each of our caterers and together we cook and taste all the dishes that will appear on the new menus. It all sounds simple, right? Well, the truth is that the process takes about nine months from start to finish.
Some of my favourite creations have started as signature dishes in my restaurants – for example, I love the bolognese that was inspired by Rosetta in Melbourne. In First, we cook beautiful meats such as Cape Grim beef or a veal chop accompanied by potato gratin and mac ’n’ cheese then finished with a delicious sauce. That idea comes courtesy of Rockpool Bar & Grill. And the Korean burger – which featured on the inaugural menu at the International First Lounge in Los Angeles – was inspired by a creation on the original Burger Project menu.
I’m thrilled to see exotic spices and flavours finding their way onto the menus. The blue-eye cod cooked in garam masala and coconut milk is among my favourites and continues to come back time and again. The inspiration for that dish came from the original Rockpool restaurant in The Rocks, Sydney. Then there’s the Jiangxi fish from Spice Temple – a regional Chinese dish spiked with pickled green chilli and salted red chilli that features on both domestic and international menus.
One of our greatest achievements is the collaboration between our service-training professionals and our wonderful crew to provide the highest standard of service of any airline in the world. To celebrate the Rockpool/Qantas relationship, this month we’re launching our 20th-anniversary menus in First and Business. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed creating them.
SEE ALSO: Neil Perry’s Kitchen Rules