Hands sprinkling nuts on food
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Five-star cuisine at 41,000 feet

You can take steps to make sure onboard catering is not only excellent but also tailored to your tastes and needs.

Charter operators, in concert with catering companies and select restaurants, are enhancing their food service to distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace and meet customers’ growing expectations.
“We see catering not as an additional cost someone will have to pay, but as another way we can encapsulate our brand and positively affect the customer experience,” says Ian Moore, chief commercial officer at VistaJet, an international charter service that operates Bombardier Challenger and Global jets. VistaJet recently announced that customers who sign up for at least 100 flight hours annually for three years will receive gourmet meals from leading restaurants at no extra charge.
Roger Leemann of Air Culinaire Worldwide echoes Moore’s comments. “The cost of catering is so much less than fuel, and that little bit of additional expense adds so much more to the experience,” says Leemann, who is senior vice president of culinary operations at the Tampa, Florida-based caterer. But today’s customers aren’t interested in upgrading “from a ham sandwich to lobster thermidor,” he adds. Rather, they want more fresh, regional fare, “to give a sense of where they’re coming from or where they’re going.”
Mike Moore of charter operator Meridian agrees. “People want tea with local honey, a specific bottle of wine or type of caviar, little things like that,” says Moore (no relation to Ian), who is vice president of aviation sales at his Teterboro, New Jersey company.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically enjoy the full fruits of this onboard dining trend, no matter what outfit you charter with. “The inherent problem with charter is the rotating passengers coming in,” says Joe Celentano, cofounder and co-owner with his brother John of Teterboro-based Rudy’s Inflight Catering. “[The charter company] doesn’t know Mr. Smith’s profile. [If it doesn’t ask up front or the customer doesn’t volunteer the information], it’s a learning process. The first time, they learn he’s allergic to bananas.”
Indeed, good charter providers develop detailed customer profiles that track not only food preferences but reading material, floral arrangements and knickknacks clients like onboard (items the catering companies usually provide). However, you can take steps to gauge the quality of the catering your charter company provides and ensure you get the dining experience you want and expect on every flight.
VistaJet’s Moore advises passengers to “put pressure on the operator and broker; find out how much they know about the catering company they use.” Ask the name and how long the flight provider has been working with the caterer, and whether and when the charter operator or broker has visited the company’s kitchens. Ideally, the charter company representatives will have a longstanding relationship built on knowledge of the caterer’s qualities and capabilities, and they’ll be happy to talk about it.
Also, many of today’s cabin attendants have extensive training in menu planning and food handling, preparation and presentation, and charter companies are placing more emphasis on providing high levels of cabin service. Inquire beforehand about your attendant’s training, and determine whether it’s adequate for your needs. Additionally, make sure you know and receive what you’re paying for. If the charter flight includes catering, find out exactly what’s covered and what options are available at what price.
When it comes to ordering the food, “The more information you can give the charter operator, the better,” Celentano says. “If your wife loves white roses and a particular kind of bread, no charter operator is going to want to tell you ‘No.’ I can’t imagine any [provider] who wouldn’t say to the caterer, ‘She likes this brand, and you need to make it happen.’”
Tell the charter company “what the flight is for,” advises Leemann. “That will really nail it for us as a catering company. We know the order, but we don’t know the theme or the [passengers’] lifestyle. Are they going on vacation or is it a business trip? Is it all males or predominantly females?”
He cites menus for flights to Las Vegas as an example. “That’s an easy one, because people are going to have fun. Vegas is all about big steaks and shrimp cocktails, and we can put non-food items on the flight that automatically change the atmosphere in the cabin,” such as poker chips and cards, and “gold dust” sprinkled on the desserts.
Make your catering requests in a timely manner. “The more time you give the charter operator or management company, the happier you’ll be,” says Meridian’s Moore. “If the assistant calls us at 5 p.m. about a catering request for an 8 a.m. flight, now I’m not sure the organic place [they want food from] is open.”
Finally, realize that airplane food involves some constraints—particularly when the aircraft lacks a galley. “There’s an expectation it will be five-star restaurant quality,” says Meridian’s Moore, who admits he has received occasional complaints about food from customers. “People say, ‘The catering wasn’t good.’ Well, before you were on a GIV-SP, then you got on a Hawker that didn’t have a flight attendant or standup kitchen.”

James Wynbrandt, a private pilot, is a regular BJT contributor who has also written for The New York Times, Forbes and Barron’s.