One of the pleasures, which is to say hazards, of modern life in our fair city is the ready availability of steak fajitas. Indeed, a friend of ours who fancies himself a Tex-Mex-loving demographer recently estimated that no Houstonian is ever more than 500 yards from a steak fajita. They are everywhere—top-of-the-line filet mignon jobs fully loaded with every condimental bell and whistle and fast-casual base models with nary a squirt of watery guacamole. Their dominance extends from supermarket butcher sections to the town’s toniest dining rooms to, of late, Boeing 777s at 39,000 feet, on Singapore Airlines flights from Houston to Moscow.
Yes, but are they any good? comes the question, which happens to be the same question several top executives of the airline were asking themselves one recent Friday morning, all of them huddled around a single Wedgwood plate. On it sat one loosely rolled steak fajita.
We were a mile east of Bush Intercontinental Airport, just a stone’s throw from a large, perpetually vacant cell phone waiting lot, at the home of Chelsea Food Services, a large, perpetually unvacant facility that stretches over two-and-a-half acres. Indeed, it is open around the clock, employs 800 Houstonians, and produces 25,000 airline meals a day. The company is also owned by United, although conspicuously platform-agnostic. If you’ve eaten bibimbap on Korean Airlines lately, or blanquette de veau on Air France, chances are good that your meal was created in one of Chelsea’s kitchens. It was probably pre-cooked to 30-percent doneness, put in a blast chiller—quickly reducing its temperature to 38 degrees—and then loaded onto a tray, packed into a great metal crate filled with dry ice and lots of other trays, and trucked over to Terminal D or wherever, arriving neither too early (lest it spoil) nor too late (lest it miss the flight).
“Ideally the truck gets there in advance of the flight attendants, who typically arrive 40 minutes before flight-time,” said James Boyd, Singapore Airlines’ vice president of communications. We were in one corner of a small Chelsea conference room dominated by a table full of first-class, business and economy breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners—the airline’s proposed menu for the succeeding two months. As the chefs and executives slowly moved from dish to dish, Boyd offered a running commentary on the aims and challenges of inflight dining, whispering like it was the 17th tee at Augusta National.
“Every bread has to have a crust,” he told us, pointing to a basket of dinner rolls. “Humidity on an aircraft—which can be as low as 15 percent, technically as dry as the Sahara Desert—will turn regular bread into toast.”
It also dries the noses and throats of passengers, causing “a 30 percent reduction in taste” for which Singapore’s chefs use spices and sauces as compensation. For various reasons, pork and turkey can be tough to pull off, as can branzino (“too dry and flat”). Still, Chilean sea bass is a perennial winner (“there’s a lot of moisture”), as is beef of any sort, although a medium-rare finish presents challenges for an aircraft’s convection ovens unless you use a thick cut of meat.
“That’s one of the reasons I think this chimichurri is going to work well,” Boyd said as we stared at an inch-high slab of beef tenderloin smothered in sauce. It, along with barbecue brisket, chicken and steak fajitas, are the newest entries in Singapore’s popular Book the Cook program, which allows business and first-class passengers in the airline’s various cities—Houston now among them—to take a little bit of home with them on journeys abroad. “Choice is incredibly important in creating satisfied passengers,” noted Boyd, whose company spends $500 million a year on its food program and has a devoted following among travelers to show for it.
“It’s good,” declared Simon Loke on the other side of the room. “Something for everybody.” The verdict came as welcome news to both Singapore’s executives and Chelsea chef Shashi Sanamvenkata. Loke’s title—executive sous chef—belies an enormous power. He has final say over the taste and appearance of all food in each of the airline’s 60-plus cities.
“The cherry tomato is placed at one o’clock?” asked Sanamvenkata, as he laid a chicken fajita across the middle of the plate and a steak fajita atop it, perpendicularly. Loke nodded. Then the Chelsea chef took photos of his creation for the benefit of Singapore’s flight attendants, who would be expected to replicate the dish exactly. For Sanamvenkata, who’d been in charge of realizing and executing Loke’s Tex-Mex vision, the relief was palpable.
“We’ve been working on this project for 18 months,” he said, smiling.