While in Dubai, I go on a tour of the Emirates Airlines catering facility, which supplies the airlines’ fleet of planes with pre-made meals. I was once at a party and a man told me that if you smuggled airline food off a plane and tried it on the ground, you would be shocked at how revolting it was. According to him, the height diffused the saltiness. He had also made a doll out of an apple, a champagne bottle and porcelain hands, and was stoned. So I wasn’t sure if what he said had any accuracy. But here I am in Dubai about to find out!
When I arrive at the facility, I have to go through a metal detector. Then I am instructed to put on a white lab coat and a blue hair net. They take my purse and passport away, assuring me they are safe. I am beginning to feel a bit worried. Maybe nefarious deeds do go on at airline catering facilities.
I pass by scores of factory workers washing small mountains of utensils. I was once of the opinion that there could never be too many forks and spoons in one place. But looking at the pile, I know I am finally looking at too many forks. Plates and glasses are, likewise, placed in great bins. There is a separate bin for coffee cups that had lipstick marks on their sides: problem cases.
I see where the food is made. They make 190,000 meals a day in the joint. All the mechanics behind cheap, disposable pleasures are revealed — so much effort to bring a person a small macaroni salad in a plastic container on a plane. Interestingly, there are different main courses and sweets for different flights, according to passenger demographics. I look through the prepared meals to see if I can spot a small plastic cup of poutine, to no avail.
Peter Boos, the Canadian-born executive chef for Emirates Flights Catering, comes to meet us. He is particularly proud of his desserts. He beams when he brings us to see his concoctions: puddings, sculpted pastries and slices of pie. He shows us a tray of brightly coloured, dollar-coin-shaped treats that resembles a watercolour paintbox set. He says he is trying to master macarons. He looks away quickly, as they are his only apparent failure. A woman behind me on the tour shakes her head and whispers, “Impossible, you can’t get macarons in a factory.”
Next we go into a room with schedules and clocks on the wall. The guide explains how careful everybody has to be about figures. They have to know how many people are on a flight, and it can change at the last moment. And they have to unload dirty dishes and rush out with the trays of food, without a second to spare. She really gets into explaining just how much hangs in the balance at this factory. It’s sort of like the expository scene Deepwater Horizon where they explain to you how the oil rig works before all hell breaks loose. Although to be honest, I can’t picture Mark Wahlberg starring in a film about airline catering. Steve Carell or Will Ferrell, would perhaps be a better fit.
Afterward, we have a tasting of the foods we saw being made. I sample an assortment of sandwiches that are really delicious. Then plates of the famous desserts arrive and everyone digs in. It is as good as the food at a high-end catered affair. It is definitely top-of-the-line airplane food, and it is clear that Emirates is proud of it. The man at the party was wrong about this airline’s food at least, that’s for sure.
Before leaving, as a parting gift, the tour guide gives us each a cookbook. She says they forgot to adjust the measurements for a smaller serving of cheesecake. So we should be careful, otherwise we’ll have a cheesecake that will stretch on and on and on. She laughs hysterically and throws up her hands. It is, of course, the only recipe I want to try: a cheesecake for 190 000 people.