What Do Onboard Chefs Really Do?

Reader Davey L asked the following question in the “Ask Lucky” forum:

I met a chef who works on board an airline. Have you experienced that on board? Do they just heat meals and make it look presentable or do they do the cooking on board? Have you any photos of what a kitchen on board an aircraft looks like? Which airlines have on board chefs?

Nowadays many airlines market that they have onboard chefs for premium cabin passengers. The first airlines that come to mind for onboard chefs are Austrian, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, SAS, and Turkish. Typically the onboard chef is a specially trained flight attendant, so you’ll see them in the normal flight attendant uniform for takeoff and landing, and then they’ll put on the chef’s uniform for the meal services.

garuda-first-class-60

Etihad even made an advertisement about their first class onboard chef:

Here’s a clip about the Turkish onboard chef:

But is there really such a thing as an onboard “chef,” or is this all marketing?

Ultimately the “onboard chef” position is marketing…

The onboard chef is doing nothing that the flight attendants couldn’t otherwise do. On airlines without onboard chefs, you typically have flight attendants working the “galley” position, meaning they’re not actually going to be in the aisle during the meal service, but rather will be in the galley preparing meals, so that the other flight attendants can serve them to passengers.

So there’s not some kitchen with open flames for the airlines that have onboard chefs. Most things on planes are just reheated, with a few exceptions. For example, some airlines freshly prepare eggs onboard. But that’s even done on airlines without onboard chefs, like Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa.

lufthansa-a330-first-class-48

So fundamentally the onboard chef position is marketing, but…

Airlines with onboard chefs often put more of an emphasis on catering

I think the bigger takeaway is that typically when an airline has onboard chefs they also invest more in the overall meal service. For example, all business class meals aren’t created equal.

On some airlines, it’s clear that food is catered as it’s to be presented, and all the crew does is heat it up (the below picture is from EgyptAir).

egyptair-business-class-777-47

Meanwhile on other airlines, food is catered in aluminum containers, and then the crew plates it (the below picture is from Air Serbia)

air-serbia-business-class-a330-53

As you can see, the presentation can be vastly different.

So typically when there’s an onboard chef in business class, it means that food is plated onboard, and that they might be adding some cute touches to the presentation. Obviously food might also taste better if the individual ingredients are heated and then plated together, rather than everything being heated on one plate.

Austrian-Business-Class-Catering

Some airlines give their onboard chefs a bit more creative liberty. For example, on Etihad the crews have a small “pantry” of sorts, where they can use individual ingredients to prepare things. For example, an Etihad onboard chef once prepared me a special fruit starter by taking fruit and pouring a smoothie on top.

Etihad-First-Class-A340-67

I also once had an Etihad flight that wasn’t catered correctly (they catered it for breakfast, when it should have been lunch), though the onboard chef was able to use existing ingredients to prepare me a surf & turf rather than a typical breakfast.

Etihad-First-Class-A340-55

So while you won’t see so much creativity in business class, a good Etihad onboard chef can really make a flight special.

Bottom line

Onboard chefs aren’t doing something that couldn’t otherwise be done. In other words, they’re not cooking with open flames or making your food from scratch. Instead it’s a cool opportunity for airlines to add a special touch to a meal service. The biggest takeaway from an airline having an onboard chef is that they invest more than average in their food & beverage offerings, so across the board I’ve found airlines with onboard chefs to offer superior food.

I don’t think that’s specifically because of the onboard chefs, but rather because of airlines’ commitments to their soft product.

Meanwhile airlines like Qatar Airways don’t have onboard chefs, but still have phenomenal catering.

If you’ve had an onboard chef on a flight, what was your experience like?

Comments

  1. If they can have showers why can’t they have hot tubs? I would rather drink champagne with 2A in the hot tub, than sitting alone in my seat.

  2. I’m going to suggest it’s a little bit more than marketing, although quality of the onboard chef varies markedly on Etihad they do generally have real restaurant experience — it’s not just an extra course they’ve taken. So the best ones take the ingredients they’ve got and really customize a meal. Sure, they’re working within the constraints of the galley (although galley constraints are a bit less on an Etihad A380 than a 772). But it’s often someone who can really spruce things up.

    Life changing? Absolutely not. But it CAN BE real value add. However it seems to much depend on the person.

  3. @Dan the same way the steakhouse cooks your steak. You sear it on a hot pan and put it in the oven to cook it to your desired doneness. It is seared on the ground then when you order it , the FA puts it in the oven for the time needed for your desired doneness

  4. On my last AUH-JFK apartment flight, I ordered a steak sandwich maybe 8 hours into the flight, the onboard chef apologized for not having enough tarragon left to make me béarnaise sauce so he offered to prepare his version of hollandaise. I think Etihad is the only airline that allows for such customization on the spot like you said.

  5. I thought the EY F chefs were actual chefs then trained as cabin crew?
    Regardless, my EY chef was incredibly lazy. No initiative at all.

  6. So, an “onboard chef” is a chef in the same way that I am a chef when I open up a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and heat it up.

  7. I didn’t like my experience on EY F. You’re supposed to pick your own dish from ingredients. I had no clue what I was doing so my dish turned out really bland and basic.
    I’d prefer the set menu.

  8. Really there are just another employee dedicated to first class employees, which is a good thing. Flying with Kids in Etihad F and only one other passenger in F and the Chef took care of him and then spent several hours playing games with my kids and making them different cakes to try.

  9. Years ago (2004-2007ish), when Hogan was in charge of Gulf Air, he introduced the Sky Chef Program. My understanding at the time was that the positions were filled by professional chefs. However, over time many of the chefs were being offered opportunities on the ground by first class customers so the company had a hard time keeping the positions filled. Anyways, it looks like Gulf Air still has the program: https://www.gulfair.com/on-board/sky-chef

  10. Are these airline chefs able to use an induction burner for basic food preparation? Or only an oven? With induction, it’s magnets doing the work with the metal pot. There is no open flame or hot heating element – when it is off, it is off.

  11. I had a 4 back to back Etihad first flights (1 a380 2 777 and 1 jetihad 777) and got some time to really talk to one of the chefs. They all have some sort of culinary school training background, and I found they all did slightly different touches to the meals. On one of the flights I asked them to make me eggs Benedict and 20 mins later he came back with a perfectly poached egg and a pretty good hollandaise sauce. Considering I didn’t see another one of those on my other trips, I think he made it from scratch. It was damn good too.

    So maybe it depends on which chef you get but I found they typically seemed to do more then just plate the dish.

  12. Lufthansa Technik recently presented the first real “stove” for airplanes. If I remember it correctly, it is basically an induction heated pan with a lid (to avoid hot oil splashing around in the plane, and probably also because of the smell).

  13. I have flown Austrian a lot and when I asked if the chef on one flight was a trained flight attendant he replied no, that he was not trained for emergencies. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite biz class for food.

  14. I had the best beef filet ever on any plane on EY F – and it was better than in some places on the ground, too. Our family of three were the only passengers in F on that day and the inflight chef did spoil us. Our daughter also got everything she wanted, even if it was not on the menu – like the plane version of “chicken nuggets and fries” that he prepared with some breaded chicken and fries from the oven :-).

    In 2015, I had the oppurtunity to tour the EY training center in AUH and the inflight chefs definitely got a different training there which included much more than just “cabin crew training”.

    You can find the criteria for EY inflight chefs at: https://careers.etihad.com/job/Infflight-Chef/56570401/
    Note that the first criterion is: “Qualified Chef, experience in 4/5 star hotels, fine dining establishments or cruise liners.”

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