Explore the science behind plane food and learn why food tastes differently in the air. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

About an hour before United Airlines Flight 40 departed for Rome, two trucks sidled up to the aircraft parked at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The vehicles’ cargo compartments extended to the open cabin doors. Several men in neon safety vests hopped out pushing metal carts.

In less time than it takes to peel a bag of potatoes, the catering crew filled the plane’s three galleys with a multi-course culinary feast. The entrees — filet of Amazon cod with vegetable ratatouille, short rib of beef with wasabi grits, chana masala with aloo ginger garlic rice — read like specials at a high-end restaurant. Nowhere on the menu: tongue de shoe drowning in a mud puddle.

“There was a day when we had mystery meat covered in sauce to keep it moist,” said Gerry McLoughlin, one of the airline’s executive chefs. “That day is gone.”

At United, as well as across the industry, in-flight dining has sprouted new wings — and they don’t taste like overprocessed chicken. Not so long ago, airplane food was a punching bag cinched with a punchline. In a 2009 letter to Virgin Atlantic owner Richard Branson, an aggrieved customer compared the experience of removing the tinfoil covering his meal to opening a Christmas present and finding a dead hamster inside.

The laugh track lost its chuckle more than a decade ago when airlines started to phase out free economy-class meals on domestic flights. The companies distracted hungry passengers with elfin bags of peanuts and buy-your-own boxes of grub. However, airlines’ increasing focus on personalized service combined with an expanding awareness of global cuisine has reversed the decline. Is that a bird, plane . . . or a spiced-rub breast of chicken on a 747?

“The food definitely has an opportunity to improve,” said McLoughlin, who is also the company’s senior manager of food and beverage planning. “Before, it was entertainment and a way to keep passengers in their seats. Now, it is about customer experience.”

United Airlines prepares in-flight meals worthy of a fine restaurant, such as gingered sliced beef and udon salad with edamame. (Courtesy of United Airlines Creative Services)

Every six to 15 months, for example, McLoughlin and his team of chefs refresh the menus for all cabin categories. (United provides free meals on most long-haul flights; economy passengers pay within North America, the Caribbean, some of Latin America, and between Honolulu and Guam.) On Oct. 25, the company unveiled dishes for its BusinessFirst cabin (duck confit ravioli, mushroom ragout, semi-dried tomatoes and sauteed asparagus, for instance) on select routes. In addition, United will roll out a second wave of dishes on Nov. 1 for various destinations and cabin classes, including new choices for economy. Among the options: Napa salad with grilled salmon, goat cheese and figs (premium class), and a French country-style bowl with slow-cooked beef, roasted carrots, onions, parsnips and white rice (coach). And for dessert (premium-only again), cookies baked onboard, ice cream or sorbet — to cleanse the palate for the return flight home.

“We want to board enough choices so that everyone can have their dream dish,” said the Irish chef, whose fantasy in-flight meal is roast leg of lamb with mint sauce.

In a conventional restaurant setting, such ambitious menus are hardly surprising. But airlines must contend with a steady stream of obstacles from the ground up, up, up. For instance, dining rooms typically don’t bounce or dry out customers’ taste buds.

To better understand United’s food operations, I slipped on a white lab coat and hair net (hot pink!) for a behind-the-scenes peek at its Newark kitchen and catering facility. Moving from station to station, I watched the airline meal proceed from conception to consumption. Along the way, I witnessed the demise of the Mystery Meat Era and the rise of the Flat-Iron Steak with Grilled Broccolini Generation, with a squirt of red chimichurri sauce on top.

Preparing menus for takeoff

United’s Chelsea Food Services in Newark opened 25 years ago, back when Americans were gobbling up fat-free and fusion foods and a recession was pinching airlines’ purses. Its approximately 140,000-square-foot building on the south end of the airfield caters United-operated flights; a second 15,000-square-foot kitchen on the north side services regional United Express flights. The larger structure is plain and white, like a block of tofu. No tantalizing aromas escape its glass doors.

At the front desk, I received my touring ensemble and headed to a conference room to meet McLoughlin and Robin Carr, executive chef at the Newark site. (The airline also has kitchens in Denver, Houston, Cleveland and Honolulu.) The pair wore traditional chef’s jackets and pants: white for Carr, black for McLoughlin.

Gerry McLoughlin, an executive chef at United, works with the staff to prepare more than 33,000 meals a day at the kitchen and catering facility at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. (Stan Godlewski/For the Washington Post)

McLoughlin lives in Chicago but travels around the world visiting United’s caterers and consulting with staff members on the menus, which are regularly tweaked. Many of the changes are based on customer research and observations by flight attendants. For example, the flight crew might note that, due to popular demand, they need a larger supply of lobster mac-and-cheese. Or they might recommend nixing the hot breakfast sandwich, due to no demand.

“Fruit and the scrambled egg skillet do much better as a.m. meals,” McLoughlin said.

Two decades ago, Carr said, entree choices barely stretched beyond steak and potatoes and roasted chicken. Over the years, the options have vastly expanded with global flavors (Indian, Korean, Japanese) and specialized diets (vegetarian, gluten-free). Travelers can also personalize their meals, adding or subtracting certain items.

“We put the starch in a separate cup and the protein on the side,” McLoughlin said, “so you can adjust the meals to your tastes.”

United’s experts also follow trends and movements that are reshaping the culinary landscape. When possible, they use hormone-free beef, sustainable seafood and local and seasonal ingredients. The menu planners have also been incorporating bolder flavors and more adventurous pantry items, such as flat-iron steak and short ribs; beets, fennel and butternut squash; and aioli.

“We should do more lamb and duck,” McLoughlin said about the polarizing proteins.

To spark innovation, the airline partners with chefs affiliated with the Trotter Project, a nonprofit organization that educates and inspires budding talent. Since March, professionals such as “Top Chef” competitor Richie Farina and Della Gossett, pastry chef at Spago Beverly Hills, have tossed ideas into the pot and helped reimagine airplane food.

“Having fresh eyes and chefs with no boundaries gives us a different perspective,” said McLoughlin, who has worked in the culinary field for more than 30 years.

Although the chefs dream big, the reality of serving food at high altitude snaps them out of their reveries. One of their greatest challenges is countering the effects of the high altitude and pressurized cabins. The lack of humidity causes passengers to lose their sense of smell and taste, a roughly 30 percent decline of taste bud strength. Also crashing the dinner party: a persistent engine noise, which is as melodious as the buzz of a busted speaker.

To compensate for the diminished flavor, the staff uses a heavy hand with spices and aromatic herbs. They incorporate tomatoes, basil and rosemary into the recipes but go light on the salt. They roast vegetables, a cooking technique that releases the natural sugars, and sous-vide meats and fish to retain moisture. They also avoid butter-based sauces, such as hollandaise, which tend to break when reheated.

Passengers stay nourished with a plate of smoked duck breast and pickled cauliflower. (Courtesy of United Airlines Creative Services)

Finally, all dishes must fit within the dimensions of the trolley cart, the sole mode of transportation on the ground and in the air. That means no meals can be taller than two inches or wider than 12. To spruce up the (flat) presentation, the flight attendants receive instructions on how to assemble and display the dishes. The tutorial includes a step-by-step guide sheet, photos and, eventually, videos.

“We need them to look inside our mind and think: What did the chef imagine?” he said.

However, time constraints and turbulence can often botch the plating.

To be sure, McLoughlin and his team face unparalleled challenges. Yet he shares the same goal as his earthbound peers.

“The greatest compliment for any chef,” he said, “is, ‘That was a very enjoyable meal.’ ”

Culinary choreography

United’s food operation is orderly in theory but feels like a frenzied Richard Scarry streetscape. Make way for incoming catering trucks, rolling carts and falling bags of ice!

Brenda Gyory, managing director of the Newark kitchen operations, started our tour at the beginning, and the end, of the meals’ journey: the transportation dock.

Nearly 400 United and United Express flights leave this airport each day, carrying more than 33,000 meals. The number of carts boarded on each plane depends on the size of the jet. A wide-body might require 125; a smaller model, 10. The crew typically loads the containers an hour before takeoff to avoid run-ins with flight attendants and passengers. On a Tuesday afternoon in October, I stood amid a parking lot of carts bound for a Tel Aviv flight departing at 4:45.

“Everything has to be orchestrated so that we are not on [the plane] too early or too late,” Gyory said.

The Newark facility stocks meal service items — entrees, snacks, drinks and settings — that appear on nearly 400 flights a day. (Stan Godlewski/For The Washington Post)

When the planes land at the airport, the employees reverse course. They collect the used carts and strip them of dirty dishware and leftover meals. They send the trolleys through a washing station that sprays water like a heavy rain shower; the dishes and utensils receive a thorough scrubbing in an industrial machine.

Food and beverage deliveries arrive around-the-clock, and a massive walk-in freezer stores four to five days’ worth of meats, frozen treats and other perishables. During a frosty dash inside, I spotted boxes of mango sorbet, salted caramel gelato and ice cream truffles.

A refrigerated warehouse houses an international marketplace of products that reflect the diversity of the menus. In one corner, I noticed bags of kimchi, mint-and-cilantro chutney, vegetable Shanghai dim sum and Kalamata olives in giant red drums.

To maximize freshness, the kitchen staff typically cooks and chills the meals six to eight hours in advance. In the hot-food cooking area, a chef in a black coat and checkered pants grilled shrimp that would later garnish a grilled salmon appetizer. Nearby, another cook sauteed vegetables for a meal plan to Europe.

A chef prepares shrimp to accompany a grilled salmon appetizer. (Stan Godlewski/For The Washington Post)

Meals above the clouds: grilled shrimp with fresh cabbage and grilled pineapple salad. (Courtesy of United Airlines Creative Services)

In the cold-food kitchen, McLoughlin randomly pulled out trays that were tucked inside carts scattered around the floor. He showed me a cucumber-and-tomato salad striped with slices of steak, and a breakfast plate with granola, fruit, Greek yogurt, strawberry jam and an empty space for a croissant. (The bread, which can dry out quickly, is packed separately.) A metal box bound for Israel contained two special meals, kosher and halal.

Until that point, I could identify all of the food items displayed before me. However, I was stumped by three rows of glasses filled with red, brown and white ingredients — some smooth, some chunky.

“These are the toppings for the build-your-own sundaes,” he said, pointing at the whipped cream, cherries, caramel, fudge and Heath bar crunch crumbles.

A number of meal items, such as vegetables and steaks, are about 90 percent cooked before they advance to the boarding stage. The ground staff assembles the plates using photos of the completed dishes as visual guides. At one long metal table, a man wearing a sweatshirt under his sanitation coat placed the components of Asian short ribs into aluminum tins. He surrounded the main event with sides — wasabi grits, julienned vegetables and hoisin sauce — resting in paper cups.

“One hundred and fifty down,” joked McLoughlin, “150 to go.”

Before returning to the docking station, we ambled into a room that resembled an ABC store. A sign announced the land of liquid: “Beer, Wine Margarita Mix Repacking Area.” The occupants included cases of Miller Lite and Goose IPA, cans of Budweiser and bottles of white wine.

I met John Knight near a stack of soda. Knight spent 18 years as a flight attendant before switching to a management position in the kitchen. Back when he was pushing carts above the clouds, “there was not much variety,” he said. “Customers are offered a whole lot more choice now. It’s absolutely been elevated.”

On a recent flight to Brussels, he and his wife experienced these new heights.

“The food was really good,” he said with a lilt of surprise in his voice.

A ground crew loads carts of food and catering supplies on a jet bound for Rome. (Stan Godlewski/For The Washington Post)
Cycle’s completion

Passengers waiting to board the Rome flight were unaware of the swirl of activity taking place inside the aircraft.

A cleaning crew swept through the seats, tossing trash and bagging blankets. Flight attendants snapped group shots to mark the last day of one of their colleagues. A pilot entered the cockpit carrying her lunch tote. And several men quickly moved through the aisles to fill the galleys with meals for 242 people.

Within 15 minutes, Flight 40 was ready — well, at least the dining portion of the trip.

The catering crew returned to the main facility, because the cycle never stops spinning. More planes would soon arrive and depart. Carts needed to be emptied and loaded. And passengers had to be fed.

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