October 2011 | Earlier this year, British Airways teamed up with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, well-known for his quirky Fat Duck Restaurant and highly experimental dishes such as snail porridge, in an innovative project to take airline food to new heights. The relationship between Blumenthal and British Airways has been on-going since the popular television series ‘Mission Impossible’, which saw Blumenthal tackling the kitchens at many British institutions, with British Airways being one compliant victim.
In the Mission Impossible episode with British Airways, which aired on Channel 4 in March 2011, Blumenthal tackled the issue of what happens to food and the ability to taste at altitude, combined with the confines of an aircraft’s galley area. 35,000 feet above ground, Blumenthal gave the TV audience a glimpse into airline food, while convincing catering experts Gate Gourmet that unlike salt and sugar, which need to be stronger to savour in high altitude, umami-rich ingredients stayed the same. Blumenthal has long used umami, a savoury flavour known as the ‘fifth taste’, which occurs naturally in foods such as seaweed, tomatoes, mackerel and parmesan cheese, to push the taste barriers at his Fat Duck restaurant. After several experiments, Blumenthal then went on to win over passengers, as well as BA executives, with a tasty, umami-rich ‘seaweed cottage pie’.
Umami in the Air
The findings from ‘Mission Impossible’ encouraged BA’s catering staff to change menu plans, use of ingredients and the way in which food is prepared. Furthermore, BA invited Blumenthal to help to create their new, umami-based menu, using cheese, spices and seasonal produce. Says Mark Hassell, British Airways’ head of customer experience and a tasting panel judge on the Mission Impossible show: “There is a real science to food at altitude and with his innovative and creative approach, Heston’s work has been really interesting to us.”
From June 2011, BA’s on board menu in Business and First features umami dishes such as classic tuna Nicoise, roasted Mediterranean vegetables, sauteed salmon and gilt head bream with soy sauce and shitake mushrooms, and asparagus with pea and broad bean dressing and poached hen’s egg.
BA’s decision to introduce umami-rich dishes onboard is part of a larger initiative by the airline, called ‘Height Cuisine’, which aims to show the effort BA puts in preparing food for consumption on 30,000 feet. As part of the Height Cuisine campaign BA has also published a series of videos, such as ‘Wine in the sky’ which documents a wine tasting with one of British Airways’ wine advisors to test the ‘Height Cuisine’ theory on the ground and at altitude.
British Airways also introduced its ‘Height Cuisine’ concept at the popular Taste of London food festival in July 2011. The airline invited festival visitors to meet food experts and experience the work that has been going on behind the scenes to create food in the air. Guests could take part in experiments to learn how taste changes depending on the environment, as well as sample onboard dishes, including the new umami-based menus.
Heston Blumenthal’s partnership with BA will continue into 2012. Being the official airline for the 2012 Olympic Games, the airline earlier this year launched a co-creation campaign that invited aspiring chefs, scriptwriters and artists to submit their ideas for an Olympic Games-inspired onboard menu, in-flight movie and aircraft livery. The winner in the food category is Michelin-starred Simon Hulstone from restaurant The Elephant in Torquay and best known for its British-inspired cuisine. Hulstone will work with mentor Heston Blumenthal to create several new dishes for BA, which will take to the skies in February 2012.