I was given the opportunity to go behind the scenes with Delta to learn more about their food and beverage offerings for Delta One; the airlines' answer to business class. Out of London, all premium catering is provided by GateGourmet - whom are the largest independent caterer within the airline industry; suppling the carrier with approximately 50-51% of their meals worldwide.
Following on from obtaining a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic, Delta embarked on an ambitious $4 billion dollar investment program to enhance the customer experience both in the air and on the ground. One of the key aspects was the food.
Featuring lie flat beds with 180-degree recline. Westin heavenly bedding, Tumi amenity kits and all the perks you would associate with business class; the one thing you may not think that an American carrier (whom is the largest airline based on passenger numbers) would be known for is its food. But today I found out it is. (PC: Delta)
So how are the meals developed?
Similar to other airlines, Delta carry out a workshop with the caterer twice a year; which is where a series of dishes are presented to airline representatives. The way it was explained made me think of a Masterchef-style competition. By this, I mean that colleagues then have the very hard task of tasting the meals and providing recommendations and feedback - before voting as to what dish will make it to the skies.
At present, menus onboard Delta flights are cycled three times a year to offer variety to their passengers. However from December, the airline will be changing this to cycle menus each season (every three months). This will allow them to offer specific offerings depending upon the season; and try to use local ingredients where possible. For example, a typical Delta One menu out of London features a dish created exclusively for the airline.
With good food you need to have a nice glass of wine, so what better way to choose a selection other than pairing up with a master wine sommelier? Being one of only seventeen women in the world to bear the title; Andrea Robinson has the tough job of trying more than 1,600 wines each year and choosing just a few to make it to glasses at 30,000ft. Again, the wine selection is currently refreshed every three months; but this will change to reflect the food offerings - and obviously these are paired to go with one another. (PC: Delta)
A tour of GateGourmet’s Heathrow facility
During a tour of one of GateGourmet's facilities on the Heathrow campus, I was able to get a first-hand look at the complex process on preparing and delivering meals and equipment to the right aircraft on time. Not only do GateGourmet provide more than 600,000 meals a year to Delta from Heathrow alone, but they also supply catering to many other airlines; and their operation at Heathrow runs from 05:00 in the morning until 22:30 at night; 365 days a year. (PC: GateGourmet)
For an aviation geek like me, it was really interesting to watch the whole process unfold right in front of me. You'd think that a large warehouse would be chaotic dealing with the catering operation for multiple airlines all at once; but it was surprisingly very calm and organised. As the years have passed and technology has developed; GateGourmet now use a digital tracking system to monitor the entire process; from arrival of the equipment and supplies right through to the cooking, preparation and subsequent delivery to the airline.
Where does the food and equipment go?
Once the food has been prepared, it is then loaded into trolleys and placed into large chillers until it's time to go to the aircraft. It is then moved to the loading area and loaded onto refrigerated vans and delivered to the aircraft. Each trolley actually features a label on the top which indicates the contents, where items can be found within the trolley and where it should be loaded on the aircraft, such as D4 (door 4), Oven 1.
This is then communicated to the crew during a catering check onboard so they can make all the necessary preparations for the flight. In terms of the actual cooking and presentation itself, flight attendants are provided with cooking and plating instructions, which includes detailed information and photography on how each dish should look when presented to the customer; ensuring everything has been taken care of.
During my day I was fortunate enough to experience a Delta One meal service.
It all starts as soon as passengers get on board, with a choice of welcome drink from either a Mimosa, champagne, beer or soft drink that's accompanied by a packet of mixed nuts.
After departure, another bar round is carried out just before the first meal service to begin. I learned that the dining experience takes around one and a half hours to complete; however this can vary due to turbulence and other factors. Delta also offer a Dine and Rest service. Popular on shorter transatlantic flights, passengers are able to experience the delicious food and drink all on one meal tray. Allowing them to enjoy their meal and then catch up on some work or get some rest.
The appetiser I enjoyed was Smoked salmon and grilled shrimp with caper onion relish and creamy cocktail sauce. This was followed by a Caprese salad with basil infused olive oil and a Thai coconut soup.
For the main event, I was able to sample a smaller portion of some of the entrees available.
You'll find a choice of four on board, which includes a vegetarian option.
Beef tenderloin with cafe de paris butter, gratin potatoes, sautéed spinach and carrots.
Five cheese ravioli with arrabbiata sauce.
For the sweet delight, I was once again able to enjoy two out of the three options available; including Delta's famous Ice Cream Sundae which is so popular, there was uproar amongst the flying community when the airline tried to remove it! Needless to say it quickly returned to the skies.
Did you know that more than 2.3 million of the sundaes are served up each year? I can confirm it was delicious.
The famous Vanilla ice cream sundae.
In-between the two meal services, passengers are able to visit the galley and pick up some sweet and savoury snacks from the Skybreak Basket. Additionally, Delta's crew pass through the cabin offering warmed chocolate cookies with milk. It's like a flashback to the days when I was younger all over again!
Approximately an hour and a half prior to landing, Delta One passengers then receive a lighter meal; the choice is currently between a Fattoush salad with grilled salmon, pitta chips and a lemon wedge that's served with a cheese selection and fresh fruit; or two Lobster sliders with a mixed green salad. The latter is incredibly popular and looked delicious.
Finally, passengers are presented with a mini chocolate as a small thank you for flying with Delta. Cute.
So there you have it. If you're lucky enough to be flying in Delta One in the future; these are the types of delicious meals that could be placed in-front of you.
But it doesn't stop there. Delta have also completely refreshed the Economy experience; where passengers can now enjoy complimentary wines and spirits and sleeper kits which includes a bottle of water. Surely little things like that can't have a big influence on customer satisfaction? Believe me, they do.
It was a lot of fun learning about how the meals are prepared, and being the unfortunate soul who had to experience the food whilst in a conference room near Heathrow. I'd like to thank the team at Delta and GateGourmet for a thoroughly interesting day out, but if there is one thing I learned today; it's that you'll never disembark a Delta flight feeling hungry; no matter where you sit.