As the taxi took a right turn towards Centaur hotel, the documentary I saw on National Geographic kept replaying in my mind. I was invited by Vistara – the TATA-SIA joint venture and a full service airline in India to a chef’s table at TajSATS flight kitchen near Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. Chef Arun Batra, Executive Chef – TajSATS and Giam Ming Toh, Chief Commercial Officer, Vistara were to be present at the event.
While the visuals of different sections of the facility, meal types and astronomical numbers of breads being baked in a day kept replaying, the taxi stopped near TajSATS and a kind gentlemen had guessed why I was there. A quick cross check for my name and he was directing the taxi driver to drop me inside at the reception which we reached after passing a lineup of catering trucks.
Vistara Corporate Communications team led by Rashmi Soni & Bhakti Arora along member of Vistara’s PR partner team – Hanisha Dhameja of Hill+Knowlton Strategies were at the entrance to welcome the invitees. These ladies have taken maximum trouble to arrange for my logistics right from the day they first got in touch with me to be part of the event. Since I was the only invitee who was not from Delhi, the complexity was more.
Before some formal introductions or exchange of cards could be done, the Vistara crew was ready with welcome drinks – a choice between Masala Chass (Butter milk) or fizzy coolers. To be honest, I forgot the name of the coolers, as I quickly became part of a very lively discussion about the event, the airline and what else but the food.
When most of the invitees turned up, we made our way to the specially arranged table for us and were soon joined by Giam Ming Toh and Arun Batra. A short introduction of both of them was followed by a brief about concept of Food for the airline, starting with the days when Vistara did market research and realized importance of food for Indians who travel and disappointment over food of other carriers. Mr. Toh covered aspect after aspect in detail covering most of the questions which the gathering had in minds.
The major details were related to Food Philosophy – how they aim to have Contemporary Indian Dining which should be nourishing and Healthy with thoughtful innovation and giving a personalized dining experience for the guest.
I have always had a feeling that the Economy class has been downgraded from a meals perspective for the premium economy to look good and this subject was touched upon when Mr.Toh gave out some feedback and survey results about the box meal concept which suggested otherwise. He also highlighted on the premium image of the airline and their initial survey which showed people wanting to pay for something more than the economy class.
There was some fascinating session which lay ahead for us – how the taste of the food is different due to the controlled pressure at 35000 feet and the meal planning.
All about Meals
The most interesting of all discussions revolved around planning a meal. The airline gives an option of 1 Veg or 1 Non Veg meal in Economy, while the options increase to 1 Non Veg and 2 Veg in Premium Economy which further increases to 2 Non Veg and 2 Veg in Business Class.
As more and more information was being shared, we were served a choice of Chicken Tikka and Seekh Kebabs or Paneer Tikka. I opted for the Chicken Tikka which was served with a Mint Chutney and beetroot and carrot on the sides in a very innovative way. This was a refreshment which is served in Business Class. The minced mutton kebabs were very soft and juicy. What also came along on the sides was a potato preparation. A little surprising because typically in an airline, when its chicken it’s only chicken! The potatoes were tasty too. Of the three, on comparative terms the chicken tikka could have been a lot better than what it was or my taste was overpowered by the absolutely melting in mouth mutton Kebabs.
Chef Batra and Mr. Toh informed about the multiple time slots which the airline has created to serve food – Breakfast, Refreshments, Lunch, Evening Snacks and Dinner. It was interesting to know that the lunch and dinner menu is different. This was done after research among same day return visitors about having to eat similar meals twice a day. The premium Economy and Business Class cabins have coolers / cold drinks in addition to Tea/ Coffee service.
Daman Pathak – Head Inflight services for the airline informed on the 6 day rotation pattern of the menu and informed that the meals are uplifted in Delhi and Mumbai, their existing bases and the menu rotation being used in tandem at these bases to avoid the same food on day return flights. He also proudly let us know that Vistara is the only airline which is offering Chicken as well as Mutton in the same meal.
Mr.Pathak then took us through some on-board food festivals they have had in the past – including a month long Mango festival where there were Mango delicacies and Mango coolers on offer. The “seasonal twists” as he called them will continue into the winter with delicacies like “Gajar ka Halwa” and “Gulab Jamun” available in winter.
There were questions about South Indian & North Indian breakfast and food options and Chef Batra was in his element as he explained the use of ingredients, effect of cooling, heating and re-heating on these ingredients and selection of menu. A typical south Indian breakfast menu, he said would be Upma with Sambar and not Idli which does not remain as soft and fluffy as it should be after cooling and heating.
Chef Batra also took us through the whole process of preparing food from ingredients to dispatch to the airport, which approximately takes 8 hours. His philosophy of “Food should be moist and should look fresh and good” struck a chord with the entire gathering. This was nicely done with examples like how only stuffed parathas are served on Vistara because plain parathas do not remain moist after being cooled made the foodies think of their past air travel experiences.
One of the most fascinating take away from the session was the knowledge that there are 32 meals which are heated at a time in the convection oven inside the aircraft.
Chef Batra gave an overview of TajSATS and how its strength of 1000+ employees help run a 24x7x365 kitchen and cater to over 20 airlines from Delhi alone. The kind of partnerships TajSATS has and the expertise.
It was interesting to know how few chefs work under exchange programs or go for training to cater to specific airlines because of the regional preferences, with a prime example of two chefs who are experts in Japanese cuisine and help cater to ANA and JAL – who have flights to Delhi.
A team of 30 chefs keeps working on menu and innovates, often training at different locations across the world.