The Los Angeles-based Irish food writer and TV presenter Donal Skehan has developed a range of meals to be served on Virgin Atlantic flights and in the airline's airport lounges. The deal will see 10 million dishes devised by Skehan served in-flight each year, and a further 500,000 at Virgin Clubhouses.
Dine With Donal dishes will be available in the airline’s Upper Class cabins on all flights leaving the UK, and at all of its airport Clubhouses, from this month. Meals for Premium and Economy cabins will follow next year.
"Twelve months ago Virgin Atlantic came to me with a big challenge, to help them be the airline that doesn't serve airline food," said Skehan, who was in London on Wednesday to appear on This Morning on ITV. "I've been keeping it under wraps for a year, it has been killing me."
Virgin Atlantic declined to put a value on the contract, however celebrity chef collaborations with airlines are a lucrative and increasingly common initiative. Qantas was a trailblazer in this respect when the company hired Neil Perry of Rockpool restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to create dishes for its in-flight menu in 1997.
Gordon Ramsay has consulted for Singapore Airlines, and his fellow British chefs Heston Blumenthal and Simon Hulstone have worked with British Airways. Air France has a panel of top chefs working with it, as does Japan Airlines, including two whose restaurants have three Michelin stars.
Some airlines, including Turkish and Etihad, have taken the concept a step further and have chefs on board to cook elements of their in-flight offering.
However, in most instances celebrity chef menus and on board chefs are the preserve of those occuping the first and business class cabins. Virgin Atlantic is among the first to extend this feature to economy ticket passengers.
The Dine With Donal dishes are made with sustainably sourced fish, meat and vegetables, in line with Virgin's work with the Sustainable Restaurant Association to build a framework to address sustainability issues and waste, in relation to in-flight catering.
They take inspiration from the destinations the airline serves, as well as Skehan’s worldwide travels for his TV series and cookery books. Dishes on board this month include aromatic Thai vegetable stew, and charred cod with spicy mango salad and nam jim dressing. Passengers with Clubhouse access can tuck into spiced chorizo, fennel and tomato stew; Vietnamese beef and mango salad, and super green omelette with goats’ cheese, sun-blushed tomatoes and avocado.
The airline hired Skehan to work with their development chefs to “reinvent their dining experience at 38,000ft.” Flying interferes with taste, dulling the palate, and in general, strongly flavoured foods perform better at altitude. Skehan says his trademark “big, bold flavours” were key to devising his menu.
The logistics of delivering to the brief were also a major challenge, according to Skehan. “Upper class, premium economy and economy all work completely differently in terms of how the food arrives on the plane, and then you’ve got the Clubhouses on the other hand that have dedicated restaurant teams and chefs cooking to order. Each and every aspect of it was completely different.”
In order to see what was involved in serving meals on board a flight, Skehan took a hands-on approach. “I have served one of my own meals myself on a flight. I was in the galley, it was quite an experience, but unless you do that, you really can't get a sense of what they're up against.”
Daniel Kerzner, VP Customer Experience at Virgin Atlantic said: "We continue to raise the bar by looking outside our industry for the latest trends and innovation. Donal is the perfect partner to help us bring game changing food to the skies, and give our customers an elevated experience they won't find anywhere else."
Earlier this year Virgin Atlantic introduced a Mile High Tea designed by master patisserie Eric Landlard for their clubhouses, and cabins onboard.