Gate Gourmet's Alfred Gafner is no ordinary chef, but then the Zurich kitchen he heads up is no ordinary kitchen.This content was published on March 17, 2003 - 12:46
After all, what other Zurich kitchen can turn out 50,000 meals a day for its customers - who eat while leaving the city at around 800 kilometres an hour?
As the second-biggest airline catering company in the world, Gate Gourmet has acquired a good deal of technical knowledge in its mission to take food to new heights, and a quick tour of the Zurich kitchen reveals some correspondingly high-tech features.
With the delight that other chefs might reserve for their latest recipes, Gafner proudly points out a test involving a high-steam pressure system, which processes decontaminated spices to keep down their microbiological levels.
Meat, cooking in a separate area, is meanwhile monitored internally using computerised thermometers, before being placed in a CO2 quick freezer in a further effort to prevent a possible growth of micro-organisms.
"Punctuality is of much more importance to us than in a regular kitchen," Gafner points out, "because we can't afford to delay a flight just because the meals aren't ready.
"To get round this, all the hot meals are prepared 12 hours ahead of time and cooled for subsequent reheating on the aircraft."
Gafner admits that the effect of this process on certain food types may not produce the same sort of quality as one might expect from a top restaurant.
However, by concentrating on suitable recipes and the best available technology he believes his team are able to challenge stereotypes about the quality of airline food.
"Every day we are fighting to raise our reputation. And when the food is prepared in the right way, I challenge any of the great chefs to try the first-class food in our airlines and say that they are not impressed.
"We certainly don't shy away from any competition, and it's our main challenge to get rid of the stereotype about airline food once and for all."
Gate Gourmet's success in winning contracts from such aviation giants as United Airlines, British Airways and Delta Airlines suggests that those inside the industry are already convinced.
But the international variety of Gate Gourmet's clients brings with it other challenges, with global tastes calling for a good deal more than fondue, raclette and other Swiss specialities.
"The airlines tend to know exactly what they want from us and more often than not they'll be asking us to come up with dishes that reflect their own national cuisine.
"The problem we have is in making those dishes taste authentic, because we can't have chefs from every different country working full-time in all of our kitchens."
To solve this problem, Gate Gourmet relies once again on the company's technology and on its production systems.
After the development of every new recipe, the ingredients and cooking methods are carefully measured and recorded so that the meal can then be precisely duplicated in mass quantities.
"Having to lay down the amount of a given spice to within a tenth of a gramme does take out some of the sense of 'feel' which you associate with normal cooking," Gafner admits.
"But on the other hand, it's a great opportunity for our chefs to learn about different types of food from all around the world."
Along with that opportunity comes a fair amount of responsibility, since many of the recipes have been concocted with more than just taste in mind.
"We also have around 120 special diets to consider, be they for medical requirements or for religious beliefs or health preferences," Gafner points out.
"If we're preparing a meal for someone who is allergic to egg yolks and the chef makes a mistake by using a cream that contains eggs, we clearly have a problem - especially since the customer could be thousands of miles across the ocean by the time they start eating."
Detailed labelling, as well as the rigorous control of ingredients in each recipe, help ensure that the right meal does indeed end up with the right passenger, whose name is even added to the label where possible.
With such attention to detail in force throughout the kitchen, customers on flights leaving Zurich might of course never even guess that their sushi, curry or kosher meal has been prepared by local chefs.
But then with up to 50,000 passengers to serve every day, the Gate Gourmet team seems more than ready to let the food itself be the star.
swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich
Gate Gourmet employs around 25,000 people in 31 countries, making it the largest of Swissair's former subsidiaries.
The catering firm provides 1,500 jobs in Switzerland.
Following Swissair's collapse, the Zurich-based company was sold for SFR1.1 billion to American investors Texas Pacific Group.
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