Estonian Air lets local restaurants introduce their cuisine to passengers in the air

A trend close to our heart here at is the growing number of airlines that are serving local food onboard. Offering national or regional specialties onboard – sourced locally as much as possible – is a way for airlines to differentiate the passenger experience by showcasing their national heritage. It also resonates with passengers today as it ties in with consumer trends such as authenticity, storytelling and the rediscovery of national and regional identities in a globalized world.

Not daunted by the challenges of serving local food onboard, such as more complex preparation processes and a guaranteed supply, European airlines such as airBaltic, Alitalia, Swiss, and recently LOT from Poland are all offering passengers in their premium classes samples of their national cuisine. BA, meanwhile, is also adding more local elements to its onboard menu.

Restaurant in the Sky
The latest initiative comes from Estonia’s national carrier, Estonian Air, which on September 1st launched a new catering concept, called ‘Restaurant in the Sky’. During the next 12 months, Estonian Air will be serving dishes prepared by 12 different Estonian chefs on its flights. While partnering with restaurant chefs to improve the onboard food is in itself nothing new, Estonian Air came up with several innovative twists of the concept. First, the airline is highlighting a different Estonian restaurant each month. Second, all participating restaurants have to stay within the same budget that Estonian Air pays its catering company, LSG Sky Chefs. And finally, each restaurant chef will personally present his or her menu to passengers onboard a monthly ‘gourmet flight’.

Gourmet flight
The first restaurant to kick off Estonian Air’s ‘Restaurant in the Sky’ program was one of Tallinn’s top restaurants, Gloria. On 9 September, Dimitri Demjanov, owner and Chef de Cuisine of Gloria, served and presented the onboard menu on Estonian Air’s Tallinn – London – Tallinn flights. On regular flights meals are prepared by LSG Sky Chefs based on Gloria’s recipes, but on this ‘gourmet flight’ the dishes had been prepared in the kitchen of restaurant Gloria.

Chef Demjanov, a passionate advocate of Estonian food culture and using the products of small local producers, introduced the dishes to the passengers and stressed the importancy of Estonian Air representing Estonian cuisine. Says Demjanov, “A national carrier is the gateway to Estonia and thereby Estonian food has to be represented on board. Our goal was to prepare a menu which reflects Nordic cuisine and values local raw material and manufacturers. Estonian Air is the ‘door to Estonia’ and letting passengers experience Estonian cuisine onboard is a very powerful way to communicate our food.”

After a toast with the chef, passengers in Business Class then enjoyed their meal: salmon, linzes and sauerkraut on the London flights and duck confit with red cabbage, mash potato and a tart tartin for dessert on the Tallinn flight. Meanwhile, the chef mingled with the passengers, further elaborating on the choice of dishes. The chef used the stop at London Gatwick to prepare the meal for the return flight to Tallinn, cutting the duck legs in the galley while the aircraft was turned around. See here for a photo impression of the ‘gourmet flight’ experience.

Creative solutions
Since an important condition of Estonian Air’s ‘Restaurant in the Sky’ is that the budget the restaurant chefs does not exceed the amount that Estonian Air pays to LSG Sky Chefs, the program is an innovative way to improve the onboard experience without significantly raising costs. Estonian Air approached Estonia’s top restaurants with the concept and many agreed to participate. In return, the restaurants can present themselves, as well as Estonian cuisine, to passengers, much like happens at culinary festivals. Says Gunnar Mägi, Marketing and Development Director of Estonian Air, “The aim is to introduce the high level of Estonian restaurants to passengers in an unusual but interesting way – on board the plane. We wish to make the flights memorable by offering tasting experiences by diversifying the menu and trying out new approaches to on-board meals.”

The restaurants work with Estonian Air’s caterer to customize the menus to the special catering requirements in the air. Asked what the biggest challenges were in creating the dishes, Chef Demjanov of restaurant Gloria said that, besides staying within the budget, it was adapting the dishes to the changing tastes at altitude, as well as dealing with the very precise format that catering in the air requires, for example the limited use of liquids such as sauces. The next restaurants to serve their food onboard Estonian Air will be Dominic in October, followed by Stenhus in November.

Developing Estonian Air
Estonian Air’s ‘Restaurant in the Sky’ is an outcome of an earlier crowdsourcing initiative by the airline, called ‘My Estonian Air’, in which it asked the general public what they would like to see on the airline. One of the main outcomes was that Estonians would like to see the airline reflect the country’s culture and traditions, acting as an ambassador for the ‘brand’ Estonia, which among others is the home of Internet voice and video calls service Skype.

Estonian Air, a small airline with just 7 aircraft, but with plans to double this in the coming years, is currently in the process of developing a new strategy, the outcome of which will be announced by the end of September 2011. According to the airline’s new CEO, Tero Taskila, the national carrier should become bigger, more efficient and more innovative: “Estonians’ love for the creative, simple and practical solutions has created success stories in internet and mobile technology,” said Taskila. “I strongly believe that many of these positive attributes of Estonia as a country, and Estonians as people, should be part of Estonian Air as well.”

Disclosure: was a guest of Estonian Air on this first ‘gourmet flight’. All opinions in this article are our own.

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