Full-time chef, part-time pilot: James Martin

James Martin meals
Two in five holidaymakers say that the onboard food is important to them when choosing their airline… higher than you thought?  We collaborate with James Martin to push the boundaries of in-flight cuisine and make it as tasty as possible.

This interview was taken from the Thomas Cook Holiday Report 2019 



Why did you decide to get involved in airline food?

I’ve been a pilot myself for the last few years and I love flying so I was very intrigued when Thomas Cook approached me about revamping their onboard food. Five years into the collaboration, I have learnt a huge amount about the processes and techniques that work best and have enjoyed pushing the boundaries of mass-scale catering to exceed people’s expectations of airline cuisine.


How do you make food taste great in the air – what’s the secret?

Getting airline food to taste good is a complex process, involving lots of different factors. First, you have the challenges around taste as food served at 36,000 feet within a pressurised cabin doesn’t taste like it does on the ground.

We experiment with ‘umami’ rich ingredients (the recently discovered fifth taste), such as tomatoes, parmesan and mushrooms, using different spices and cooking techniques so dishes pack a punch, without copious amounts of salt and sugar.  We’re also very committed to getting the best quality ingredients possible. For instance, our beef is British and we cook with artisan beers.

You then have the issue of storage, with the steam produced by reheating affecting taste and texture. We do a lot of testing and constantly evolve dishes to get them right.  The whole process starts in my garage (which is also the Saturday Morning TV studio), where I begin experimenting with an idea for a dish.  The Thomas Cook catering team then looks at different ways to create the meal at scale, before we work together to refine it and test it under pressurised conditions.  It then goes to a customer panel.  We also rely on cabin crew to give their feedback as they eat more of our food than anyone.  And I do regular flights with the airline to make sure the in-air taste is consistent.


Which dishes are you most proud of creating for Thomas Cook?

A twice baked vegetarian cheese souffle was a coup, given the challenges with air pressure and flavour that we face. I’m also a big fan of our hickory beef slow-braised in beer and the amazing curries we offer – they work well because spicing is so important to airline food.


How do changing trends in restaurants influence your menus?

We’re always going to be more limited in what we can create due to the scale of airline food production, the logistical challenges and the fact that food tastes different in the air.  However, we go as far as we possibly can to mirror restaurant dining experiences in the air.  This is increasingly challenging as customers are so knowledgeable and their expectations are higher than ever.


What’s next for the food on Thomas Cook flights?

Our vegetarian options are becoming really popular and so we’re looking to expand the range.  For me personally, I want to create a dish using prawns.  Serving fish in the air is very tricky as the smell can filter through the whole cabin.

However, I’m determined to find a way!


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