WITH a flick of his wrist, chef Jimmy Canora carefully puts the finishing touches to the kind of dish that would surely have had his old boss Robert De Niro pleading for more.
Scottish salmon cured with whisky and local honey, herb blinis and a dressing made from crème fraiche laced with vodka, artistically arranged alongside a mini tower created using shallots and capers – approximately 35,000ft from the kind of food most folk might associate with his “day job”.
For while his stunning dish – created at the Balmoral with Michelin star chef Jeff Bland – looks like it would be perfectly placed on the restaurant’s award-winning menu, Chef Jimmy has in fact created it to help show the calibre of five-star food high flyers on board a United Airlines flight can expect.
Of course, for most of us, airline food normally consists of a bag of nuts and a brick-hard baguette from the steward’s trolley. Perhaps, if you’re unlucky, a rubbery dollop of congealed fluorescent yellow eggy stuff and a stone-cold bread roll constitutes the peak of in-flight dining.
It’s certainly easy to imagine you would need a time machine to enjoy the golden age of flight, when air travel was glamorous and an in-flight meal was served with real cutlery and edible food.
However, chef Jimmy – who for a decade worked in the kitchens of Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill and now helps devise the airline’s menus – insists some of the best food available is being served above the clouds.
To prove it, he jetted in to Edinburgh to create a sumptuous meal for United Airlines’ most frequent flyers, aimed at helping celebrate ten years of flights from Edinburgh to the United States and giving them a flavour of what’s on offer for first and business class passengers.
He insists – in an accent that could come straight from television’s The Sopranos – it is a world away from the rubbery meal stuffed into a plastic tray which many people associate with in-flight food.
The airline cooked up the Congress of Chefs, a group of well known and award-winning chefs from across America – of which he’s one – who come together to create restaurant quality menu for its high altitude flyers.
“The idea was to get the best products and create restaurant-style meals. We wanted a better, more cutting-edge style and quality of food,” he says.
Research found a key problem was the body’s response to being stuck in a flying tin can 35,000ft off the ground – for a start, most passengers will find they get drunk three times faster in the air than on the ground. Reduced oxygen levels, pressurised cabins and low humidity make flyers dehydrated and can even numb the taste buds, making creating tasty airline food that “travels well” a double challenge.
“Your taste buds change,” he says. “So we worked with food to make it taste good in the air. We gave it extra seasoning, more fresh herbs.”
The result is high-class versions of ossobuco – an Italian veal stew – lamb shank and warming beef stews, meals which reflect the destination such as Indian curries and even a pasta cart for Italian flights offering a selection of sauces and vintage wines.
As well as helping devise United Airline’s menus, he is currently corporate consulting chef for Delmonico’s in New York City, famous for its rib-cut steak.
But he’s not alone in trying to revitalise the image of airline food. In recent years a food revolution has taken place above our heads, with airlines competing to deliver the highest quality food and drinks to customers.
Recently luxury food magazine Saveur found what was on offer was on par with fine dining at ground level. It named Emirates tops for airline grub in its Culinary Travel Award and praised its wild Iranian caviar followed by lamb noisette.
“For me,” Jimmy shrugs, “it’s all about picking the right thing, keeping it simple and doing something with it you know will work.
“Why serve an omelette on a plane anyway?”