Anyone who has organised a dinner party knows that menu planning is more than just a numbers game. The size of your kitchen, the type of cuisine you plan to serve and the people invited can all drastically affect the results of your creative endeavours. Planning a varied weekly menu for a family of four can seem even more daunting.
Nothing, however, compares with the challenge of developing an in-flight menu for an airline which can serve up to 50,000 meals a day to travellers with differing tastes, demands and expectations. The skills required for this kind of food service operation are quite distinct from those needed in any other catering business.
"In a hotel or restaurant you can be innovative and creative. Customers are coming to you for the food and you can change and control things," says Thomas Chung, catering manager, Chinese food development, for Cathay Pacific Airways. "When flying, people are interested in getting to their destination. They are not thinking about what they are going to eat."
Space restrictions on an aircraft are a major consideration. "We have to strike a balance in terms of choice, quantity and type of food and still offer the very best," Mr Chung explains. "Hygiene and safety are the first priorities. We have to cook, chill and keep food at a certain temperature before it is served."
"We have to strike a balance in terms of choice, quantity and type of food and still offer the very best"
Mr Chung realised he belonged in the kitchen when still at high school. He learned the fundamentals of menu planning, budgeting, purchasing and cooking at an early age when he and his three sisters took turns to run the family kitchen for a year each. "We did the shopping, controlled the money and decided on all the meals," he recalls.
On leaving school, he worked as a restaurant bus boy and then in hotel housekeeping. Seeing the need for further education, he attended the school of travel industry management at the University of Hawaii and focused on food and beverage operations.
Returning to Hong Kong in 1990, Mr Chung joined a local hotel as a management trainee and, after 18 months, was offered a position with Cathay Pacific where his career took off.
Mr Chung handled international and general menu planning until, four years ago, Cathay Pacific created a new catering position for Chinese cuisine. He was promoted to oversee Chinese food development and now plans menus and manages Chinese catering on a global basis. Given that Hong Kong is the airline's home base, discriminating passengers expect the very best. "Preparation is a big challenge," he says. "Chinese people expect everything fresh. They want the wok aroma which is difficult to create when it comes to in-flight catering!"
Airline menus are generally planned on a quarterly rotation. In Hong Kong, changes are monthly and some routes may even require a weekly rotation due to high passenger volumes. Once the menu is decided and items prepared, everything must be tasted to ensure it meets specifications. "You may taste more than 100 dishes and be able to tell the difference or what is missing," explains Mr Chung, who admits he loves to eat.
Regular surveys are conducted to gauge customer feedback and comments from cabin crew are also welcomed so that improvements can be made.
Everyone in the airline catering business knows each other and career opportunities in menu planning are limited. Most people in the field gained experience as a chef or restaurant manager before joining an airline and it still takes time to understand airport abbreviations, aircraft and cabin layouts.
As a first step, Mr Chung recommends joining a catering team to gain a solid understanding of the food and beverage industry and to build up knowledge of different cuisines. "The airline business is all about people," he says, "and menu planners must be able to deal with customers, cabin crew, chefs, suppliers and operational staff."
According to Mr Chung, during the next 10 to 15 years, the mainland travel industry will become more important. "Major carriers in China are looking at a more international approach. They will need people with international experience and a knowledge of menu planning," he says.
Although many people from other countries are working in China in the hospitality industry, there are not too many with experience in airline catering and menus. Farther ahead, the Beijing Olympics in 2008 are expected to give a big boost to the travel industry and create more job opportunities.