Over the years, our dining experiences in the air has been a little bit mixed, even as children we probably have memories of eating shapeless mush as much as we have memories of our best dining experiences. Our bets are the best dining memories are recent memories. That’s because technology and science really have helped develop our in-flight dining experience, a low-pressure environment which makes our taste buds dulled in sense. One of the leading airlines pushing airline catering closer and closer (and in some respects beating) to restaurant quality cuisine is Emirates, whose three classes each provide their own challenges. In our latest interview, we speak with Robin Padgett, F&B Director at Emirates who takes time out of his busy schedule to give us an insight into the behemoth of dining logistics that is Emirates catering.
Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about background?
As a British child, I lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I wasn’t an F&B man by training. I actually trained in economics. That’s certainly helped me with the pricing side, but on a personal level, my family has always been steeped in food. My grandmother was a chef and was possibly the world’s most frustrated chef. I have childhood memories of coming home to gargantuan feasts of pheasant and lobster waiting for us. I joined Emirates almost 17 years ago, when it was still relatively young. I started with bmi, which was a lot bigger at the time, but Emirates was such an aspirational company to come to, with such big plans. I started in the procurement department, including catering, which back then had a modest catering network, which was very easy to manage.
So as Emirates was quite small with quite large plans, it must have meant keeping up was a challenge?
Absolutely. It was exciting and good fun though. We realised back in 2000 that our wine program wasn’t going to keep pace with our growth. We had a clinical way of buying wine back then, based on price, and we used to get fairly decent wines back then, but we realised with the size and scale we were becoming, we realised we needed to be much closer to the producers directly, and buying much earlier in the wine cycle. I was fortunate to set up a program that allowed us to look at the way we purchased our wines, building our relationships with producers in Bordeaux, at a Chateaux level, which was new to airlines. That ended up with us nailing down one of the best sellers in the world. We have millions of dollars of wine that we have now selected, and in France, we have consumption plans that lead us well into 2020.
Since the start, the team must have grown, do you have a lot of support at Emirates?
I have a great team working with me, I went through both the aviation and non-aviation industry to recruit staff to work in the catering department, I brought in one guy, who had grown up and trained at Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre-White, which brought in a really nice contemporary way of approaching our F&B. Behind the scenes we have a massive logistic team. Putting the food on the plate really is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the rest of the iceberg, which is behind the scenes that provides the greatest challenges. We are perhaps one of the most geographically dispersed airlines, when it comes to outstations and catering. There is no point having the most creative chefs if you can’t get the food to the right places. I have now been running the team of 60 people for 5 years and it’s been a wonderful journey.
With such a variety of routes, the menus you pick must be hard to construct?
It’s an interesting one, we could be taking someone from Osaka to Kabul, or London to Melbourne. We are trying to cater for these very significant differences, and passenger types. We want to make people happy, and want them coming off the plane saying “that was a meal that I enjoyed, that hit the mark”. We are determined to make Emirates the world’s hub, and to do this, we also have to make sure the passengers have their demands met.
And as for the classes of travel, there seems to be distinct dining presentations?
We want to simplify our approach to food. When we look at our first class cabin and passengers, we ask ourselves, ‘what would you get in a fine-dining restaurant, in Paris, New York, London, Sydney for example?’ And we do exactly the same with our business class cabin. We tailor the experience around a fast-moving bistro style restaurant. In economy, it’s the stylish cafe that gives the feel for the menus. A lot of airlines look at the dining as a commercial venture, making sure their crockery and cutlery is unbreakable and hard wearing, to minimise replacements. It lends towards a bad aesthetic. We start the other way, making sure the look and feel, (of white bone china in business and first class) is what we want, and make sure the operation works around this stipulation. We also try to pull back from garish designs, we want the food to tell the story, not the table tops.
Onboard logistics must be a nightmare?
Our galley planners work hard to make sure that all our products onboard can fit into the galleys, and that for example the chocolates we have onboard, don’t end up stored above an oven. An A380 for example flying from London to Dubai, will have over 1000 different product lines on, from caviar to forks. It has to make sense to the cabin crew as well, making sure they can find the products they need and when they need them. We use technology effectively to help us monitor the usage of the food and drink onboard. This helps us monitor wastage.
How often would the menu change on a route?
For example, we would change the menu every month. We would design 4 menus, each one for a month, and that means over a year, we cycle the menu 3 times, to offer variety. If we get feedback, we adapt our menus, so they are constantly tweaked. Funnily, demographics play a huge part on our menu selections. For example on Dubai to Khartoum, the economy passengers may be Chinese, surprisingly, and the business class cabin, is predominantly frequented by Malaysian passengers. Our sales people also help us understand the menu design, dependant on their sales strategies.
Which cabin is hardest to cater for?
Surprisingly, First Class is easiest, there is a lot of galley space, and catering for between 8 and 14 first class passengers, creating a fine dining experience can actually be quite straight forward. Business class is more of a challenge. We have less space to play with, and on our A380 we have 76 seats, whilst we have a big galley at the back, it’s some 200 metres from the back galley to the front of the business class cabin, that is a challenge that keeps us on our toes. The A380 bar area has been one of the best product innovations, simply because we planned on it being an F&B experience, but we didn’t realise how much of social success it became. We have even created unique dining experiences based around the bar, from hot snacks to light bites.
Emirates has been innovative with it’s products, especially with its A380. Where do you think other airlines are learning from Emirates?
Good service is good service, and good food is good food. We bring things back to the classics, we look at strong ingredients, and classic levels of service, rather than working with molecular cuisine or other trends, we only very rarely have worked with a celebrity chef, it’s usually just used by airlines as a marketing gimmick. Fundamentally, we want to make passengers feel like they are the only guests onboard, and that they are enjoying a great dining experience. We want to bring back glamour to travel, make sure it stays there and not be a soulless way to travel. It shouldn’t be just buying a seat. It should be a little bit like the old BOAC or Pan-Am, a personalised luxurious experience.
On a personal level, what’s your favourite route?
I have to say I love flying to London, for many reasons, the A380 always flies the route, 5 times a day. Where we really get our food spot on is, between London and Dubai and the A380 is a delight to fly. On another note, I recently went to Japan, and I was impressed by the attention to detail that Japan has when it comes to ingredients. So my perfect route I guess would be between London and anywhere in Japan.
Some gut-busting Emirates stats
Emirates will produce close to 16 million meals in 2014.
Emirates creates almost 6000 different menus a year.
Emirates is the world’s largest purchaser of Dom Perignon.
There are 3.5 million pieces of equipment across the fleet to serve the food within the cabin.
60 people run the F&B direction, including 5 regional chefs, development chefs, and galley planners.
Emirates use over 4.5 tonnes of caviar per year.