Every day at 10am, Calvin Soo sits down to a very large meal. He eats, or rather, takes small bites of, all the 25 different dishes on budget airline AirAsia’s Santan menu, tasting each element carefully.
“You get very used to the taste profile this way, so if there is even a slight variance in seasoning, we can detect it instantly. Every day, we have to make sure that the quality is at its best,” he says.
Soo is the resident chef at AirAsia and is responsible for the conceptualisation of all the dishes on the airline’s menu – from snacks like curry puffs and sandwiches to main meals like the famous Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak, Uncle Chin’s Chicken Rice, Nasi Dagang, Shepherd’s Pie and even desserts like the newly-introduced Chocolate Mousse.
Only 28, Soo has already chalked up quite a bit of experience, including being a chef-lecturer at HELP College as well as working at celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant’s restaurant Saint Pierre in Singapore.
He says that although his job is really exciting, there are a lot of challenges and limitations to what he can and cannot put on a menu. There are things he has to take into consideration that restaurateurs on-ground never, ever have to worry about.
Like the fact that a combination of dryness and low pressure in the cabin reduces the sensitivity of taste buds to sweet and salty foods by around 30%, which means every single dish has to more intense than it would be at ground level.
Or the fact that leafy vegetables are generally a no-no as these greens cannot withstand the chilling and re-heating process necessary in airline food procedures.
He also has to think about the nitty-gritty realities of cause and effect and how one component can cause a potentially negative chain reaction.
When he came up with his recipe for Salted Caramel Cookie Bar, for example, he had to make it delicious but not too crumbly, because more crumbs would mean a tedious and lengthy cleaning job for the clean-up crew, which would extend the clean-up time on individual aircrafts tremendously, causing potential problems for an airline that runs 300 flights a day.
It might sound silly to be so calculative about the precise flakiness of shortbread and curry puffs, or worry about the permissible levels of crumbs on a flight, but attention to detail is part and parcel of Soo’s line of work.
“Serving food on airlines is a lot more challenging than serving food at restaurants because ingredients are limited and the processes are very long and thorough. It’s a long way from idea to materialisation,” he says.
Building a meal from ground to way up
A “long way” is a simplified version of the long-haul trip that Soo’s recipes go through to get on board flights. He plans the AirAsia menu one year in advance and spends a whole year developing it. This includes deciding on quarterly menu updates, and festival specials like the Kolo Mee and Lemang with Rendang that he came up with for Hari Gawai and Hari Raya this year.
The recipes that Soo comes up with are then co-developed with the four suppliers appointed by AirAsia (all with HACCP and Halal certification), and get tweaked and refined, going through many tastings, before being reviewed by an evaluation panel and the bosses. Recipes that make the grade are then tested in the production line to see how they hold up.
Food prepared for aircrafts have to meet certain safety and hygiene standards. Meals produced by suppliers are first prepared in a commercial kitchen, before being assembled in a temperature-controlled assembly room at under 10°C. The meals are then blast-chilled and stored in a refrigerated facility at under 4°C.
These meals are then transferred to AirAsia’s warehouse, which also adheres to the same safety and hygiene standards. Meals are loaded onto aircrafts according to flight schedules and are then re-heated by the cabin crew according to specifications.
Before meals debut on air, Soo boards an AirAsia flight for a final taste test to see how they stack up in the pressurised, elevated atmosphere of an actual flight. Only once all the conditions for a delicious, hygienic meal have been met, does the dish get the green light.
Big boss Tony Fernandes is also known to randomly test meals, which means Soo and his team have to constantly stay alert and keep their eyes on the ball.
“Yes, he does occasionally come and try the meals. He loves to eat, so he tends to drop by asking for food! And when he asks for it, you have to give it to him immediately.
“That is one of the things that keeps us on our toes; because we know that Tony being Tony, he can just pop in at any time and try anything, and his expectations are very high,” says Soo.
Soo also goes the literal extra mile in his job, doing due diligence by trying meals on AirAsia flights long after these meals have been introduced in-flight to ensure dishes are re-heated, stored properly and meet the taste test on a consistent level.
Soo’s job also involves cost optimisation, which means he works with suppliers to decide on portion sizes and makes sure that it is cost-effective without jeopardising the quality of the meal.
“We do everything we can to ensure the meals look worthwhile for the price people pay,” he says.
Premium in-flight experience
In line with the expectations of his job, Soo recently helped develop AirAsia’s newly rebranded Santan menu (formerly known as AirAsia Café) with at least 20% new dishes on offer. The menu is in line with AirAsia’s aim of providing guests with a premium in-flight experience, which is reflected in the new and improved picture quality and menu copy.
The Santan menu also includes a wider range of dishes, including local staples like Lemang with Beef Rendang (a Hari Raya special that will only be served until the end of August), Nasi Dagang with Chicken Curry and Kabali’s Vegetable Biryani (to tie in with the Rajinikanth movie Kabali).
There are also a selection of Asean favourites inspired by Soo’s frequent travels around South-East Asia (another perk of the job). The Vietnamese Banh Mi and Ayam Penyet, for example, are on the menu because he travelled to Vietnam and Indonesia and sampled authentic versions of these dishes.
“I already had some of these regional dishes in mind, but when I was doing the development, I needed to try the original dishes, so I could base the profile on the original. When you get to travel and taste food as authentic as it is in its home country, then you experience the culture, and you understand the history behind each signature delicacy and how it is prepared, because you can see it being prepared right in front of you,” he says.
More to look forward to
Given the fast-paced nature of his job, Soo is already working on other ideas. He is looking at incorporating more children’s and vegetarian menus, as well as expanding the airline’s healthy meals and snacks line and bringing in new offerings for Deepavali and Christmas, all of which are aimed at enhancing passengers’ in-flight gourmet experience.
The snacks are something Soo is particularly keen to develop as unlike its long-haul sister AirAsiaX, AirAsia’s short-haul flights mean people only have the time and inclination to eat something quick if they’re peckish.
Soo has also noticed an increasing demand for healthy meals and is in the midst of developing more nutrient-rich options like quinoa.
According to Soo, thinking up and preparing airline food is ultimately not as simple as people might think it is. It isn’t a matter of deciding you want to put chicken rice on the menu and then putting it on a menu. The thousands of meals that are assembled every day (the nasi lemak alone can come up to 7,000 meals a day) are put together by an assembly line of individuals guided by one principle: passenger satisfaction.
“In-flight F&B involves many people working together as a team to determine and understand the needs of passengers, to ensure meals served are of the highest quality and also to determine the most suitable meal type and loading quantity base on the flight route, ” he says.
In-flight meals – what happens at each stage of the process
How AirAsia’s menu transitions from idea to reality, and what goes into these meals.
1 year before
AirAsia’s in-house chef Calvin Soo comes up with the airline’s menu for the following year, including festival specials and quarterly recipe revamps.
The recipes are co-developed with the help of suppliers and tested to ensure they can withstand airline processes, including chilling and re-heating conditions.
3-5 months later
An evaluation panel and bosses sample the new dishes and give comments and feedback.
2-3 months before flight
The proposed meals are loaded on an aircraft and tasted in-flight to ensure they meet airline standards, including a thermometer read to verify that the meals are at the right temperature when served.
When the meals have been tested on-board, the QA team sends the meals to labs to ascertain nutritional values and shelf life, so that the team can determine how long each meal can last in a chilled environment.
1-2 days before flight
The airline’s meal planners decide how many meals the airline’s four suppliers should prepare for AirAsia’s 300 daily flights. These decisions are made based on a predictive system which calculates passenger load, flight destination and analysis of wastage on previous flights. So for example, a flight to China might include more chicken rice while a flight to India might have more vegetarian or Indian meals in-flight.
The airline’s four suppliers employ about 800 people, who work to produce the daily orders, first cooking the meals in a kitchen, before assembling it in a room chilled to under 10°C, and then putting the meals in a blast chiller to rapidly cool to below 4°C, before being moved to refrigerated storage.
12 to 24 hours before flight
Meals are delivered via chilled delivery trucks to AirAsia’s warehouse. All AirAsia meals are cooked through and ready-to-eat. Last minute top-up orders can be placed until 9am, for delivery at 2pm the same day.
When the meals arrive at AirAsia’s warehouse, warehouse supervisors use a laser thermometer to randomly check batches to ensure meals are delivered at safe temperatures – which means below 4°C. Anything above that reading and the whole batch gets rejected and the supplier has to scramble to prepare a new order.
At the warehouse, meals are kept in a chilled environment (2°C to 4°C) and are loaded on to the aircraft according to flight schedule.
1 to 4 hours before flight
Warehouse executives load the meals on airline carts. The carts are then loaded onto hi lifts or refrigerated trucks. Once the hi lift reaches the tarmac, meals are loaded onto the aircraft. Because AirAsia only does short-haul flights, dry ice is included in the carts to keep meals chilled until service time.
15 minutes before serving
The in-flight meals are re-heated by cabin crew in a convection oven at a standard temperature of 175°C for 15 minutes before being served to guests.
At flight’s end
When a flight returns from its destination, unsold meals are disposed of as bacteria build-up accumulates quickly so these meals are now considered unsafe for consumption and cannot be re-used.