Dubai: Everybody needs to eat. It doesn’t matter where you are. Being 35,000 feet high in the sky is not going to stop your stomach from rumbling. And feeding that demanding beast is what Emirates Flight Catering does – on a 24-hour cycle.
The numbers are massive; 125,000 meals a day. That’s three meals a day for a population of over 80 villages.
No matter how you look at it, the numbers are awe inspiring – big enough to be a global first. Imagine your daily dinner and multiply that by 40,000 or so. Emirates Flight Catering is feeding a lot of hungry fliers daily.
Their closest competitor from the Far East serves up about 70,000 meals a day during peak traffic. Emirates delivers 150,000 meals a day during summer. And there are further expansion plans.
We decided to visit the catering facility located near Dubai International Airport and get our head around this super structure in food production, the world’s largest of its kind in terms of volume throughput.
When you think of the numbers, space is what comes to mind, along with sprawling acres of gleaming surfaces. But, we were in for a surprise. Gleaming and modern yes, but the space was optimized to create a vertical multi-storey system that follows a one-way process flow. To put it simply, it works like an inverted horseshoe. The building is a clever expression of modernist architecture, wherein ‘industrial form follows function’.
So we begin with Emirates aircraft galleys being emptied, and brought to the facility by high-loader vehicles – all within 30 minutes of an aircraft’s arrival. Time is efficiency, so there isn’t a second to be lost.
There are 34 special loading bays at the Emirates catering facility and 18 of them are in use at any point of time. The vehicles offload everything, including the laundry that gets sent off to the facility in Jebel Ali.
Lee Farrelly, Assistant Vice President Operations, said: “The operations are made up of five departments… it has 3,500 staff members working 24 by 7.”
The meal carts are loaded on to an automated monorail transport system. And off it goes to a designated area, where they are manually stripped.
The trays, cutlery, flatware, waste, all of it is collected and moved into allotted segments. Everything goes off to the ware wash area, which employs 615 people. Giant dish washers sluice away. They clean and sanitize 2.5 million items including cutlery, crockery and glassware in a day. And every piece is logged in because an active housekeeping process is a necessary part of the inventory.
As the facility optimizes space, there isn’t too much space to store back-up items – the high bay store has just enough to cover 12 hours. The rest is nestled way in Jebel Ali, with regular refilling as necessary.
After washing, everything goes off into a specialized storage system. Upon request, the system will transport the required number of items to the food preparation and meal pre-setting areas.
Now starts the real fun. There are three aspects to in-flight catering at an extremely basic level. One is planning a meal, the other is daily preparation and the third is putting it on to a meal tray to reach the consumer.
The first is a long-term process that involves studying flight routes, regions, passenger traffic, food preferences, produce availability and cultural requirements, weight, along with taste and presentation.
Chef James A. Griffith, assistant vice president at Emirates Flight Catering said: “We work at least a year in advance. It is restaurant style food. Emirates is known for the cuisine.”
They work hard to ensure that each dish is free of additives, preservatives and maintains it quality, along with having longevity.
“We have an in-house laboratory with a team of 27 people that keeps a close watch on quality and food safety,” he said.
An interesting element is that no matter how the chefs experiment, they have to make sure the menu fits the existing flatware. It is not logical to have to shop for truckloads of crockery every time the menu changes, which is at least thrice a year. So, it takes months of detailed planning, testing and evaluation before it finally makes its way on to an inflight menu.
Once that is done, the food takes form in the kitchen. Now we’ll simplify it even further and look at a single meal tray. Forget about options such as lunch, breakfast dinner, snack or the hundreds of routes.
Every meal preparation starts eight hours prior to the departure of the flight.
A sample tray would have a salad, bread roll, butter, a main course and dessert, along with flatware, sachets of seasoning, water and crockery. This means the coming together of the cold kitchen, bakery/pastry kitchen, the hot kitchen and tray setting area. And, you do have to keep in mind that they are not making just one meal at a time.
The cold foods section starts creating an assembly line of salad bowls. It dishes out an average of 34,000 fruit salads every day, explains R. Madhu Kumar, the chef in charge. He’s been in the business for 24 years.
“We make 20,000 sandwiches in a day and about 77,000 starters,” he said.
However, with quality being imperative, prior to the start of each set up, a special gold standard is created and placed. So, every chef working on that preparation knows how each presentation is supposed to look. It helps optimize and standardize presentation.
Meanwhile, each of the other section gets into the flow, too. Hundreds of perfectly shaped meringues are being browned in industrial sized ovens and giant plates of kunafeh get sliced with precision.
Batter is mixed in gallon quantities. Armies of muffins are loaded. 30,000 bread rolls spritzed to golden perfection. It employs 100 chefs.
The hot kitchen is busy, too. Perhaps the main course on the route is chicken tikka masala with pulao, along with a meat and vegetarian option. The food is stirred, tossed, spices pounded, rice fluffed and everything sent off to be dished on to trays. The kitchen is sectioned off to cover Far Eastern, Arabic/Middle East, Continental, Japanese, Sub-Continent and special meals. Following that the food is exposed to a blast chiller for 45 minutes as a safety measure.
Mukesh Tugnait, executive chef, said: “The logistics of the kitchens are equivalent to cooking for 500 weddings… 35,000 tonnes of food is prepared. We use 2,500 menus and 80,000 recipes in a year.”
Almost simultaneously, the food trays are being set up as per the flight and meal requirements. According to Dean Brooks, the Flight Preparation Manager, “80% of those employed to do this are women because they’re precise … more attention to detail.”
As the dishes are prepared, hygiene, taste and quality testing is carried out. This happens at every stage of the preparation, to ensure that only the optimal results reach consumers. Special attention is placed on the temperatures of the areas that the items are prepared, including airflow and storage. Nothing is left to chance, including the cleaning. A team of 420 ensures that the facility is pristine at all times.
Finally, the tray is done. They get loaded into a meal cart. The carts can take 34 trays, depending on the aircraft and passenger volume. They are then carted off to a storage room with sub-zero temperatures and left there for a fixed duration, prior to being loaded onto carriers that will take it to the aircraft. This further ensures food safety and quality control.
And the cycle starts all over again.