“If you’re going to a cafe and paying $25 for a meal you have certain expectations. If you’re doing a 10-course fine dining degustation you have expectations … It’s one of those things where you have to set your expectations accordingly.”
This is the sage advice of aviation journalist Jordan Chong, who is counselling me on the purchase I’ve just made – three meal packs from Gate Gourmet.
Once, Gate Gourmet’s Sydney warehouse produced 30,000 in-flight meals a day, for 21 airlines. They catered around 200 flights a day. They are one of the largest airline catering businesses in the world, supplying over 200 airports. In Australia, they have warehouses in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
In Covid times, things are a little different. With flights in and out of Australia largely grounded, and domestic flight schedules slashed, they are selling direct to the public. And the price is right.
My “clearance meal pack” is $20 for 10 frozen meals, a regular meal pack of seven is $27. The “snack pack”, which promises 10 “assorted items” – from baggies of pork crackle to cans of cola – is a mere $12. You cannot pick the meals you’ll receive – though they have options for vegetarians.
Gate Gourmet aren’t the only ones getting on to the direct to consumer bandwagon – until 4 September, Qantas is having a stocktake sale, with cut-price mystery wine cases at $13.50 a bottle, as well as tiny wine bottles for $2.99 a pop.
Gate Gourmet’s Sydney warehouse is tucked behind the airport, and the meals are pick-up only. An older man and woman are collecting their food just ahead of me. I count at least 10 heaving plastic bags of frozen food. “I’m picking it up for my friends,” explains the woman from behind her diamante sunnies and bucket hat. “I tried it and now they all want to, it’s so cheap.”
“You can’t argue with $2 a meal” I say.
Except, you can. “You didn’t get the clearance did you?” She scrunches her face. “The normal meals are much better.” I blanch a little, in anticipation.
She snaps a photograph of her haul to share with her friends, and the pair totter off, laden. Then it’s my turn. I’m presented with three large bags. None of them seem to contain crackles or cola – but I’m new to this. What do I know? I ordered the clearance meals.
I say nothing and take my food home.
I quickly discover I was right about the snack pack, they’ve given me another clearance pack instead. Another $8 saved, score!
My haul consists of three iterations of penne and red sauce (“penne with napolitana sauce and cheese crumb”; “gluten free penne pasta with chunky ratatouille”; “penne with napolitana sauce and olives”), totalling seven meals. There are also two beef rendangs with jasmine rice, one Thai yellow curry, four French toasts with mixed berries, three “Hong Kong style” chicken curries, five potato and leek frittatas and five sweet potato and bacon fritters. Twenty-seven meals for $59.
Each meal has all its ingredients and nutritional content on the label, along with cooking instructions (you nuke them). I’m shocked to discover they are not that bad for you. I’d always believed the urban legend that plane food was loaded with calories and secret chemicals to keep customers docile and mildly constipated on long-haul flights.
While there are definitely a few preservatives and anti-caking agents on the ingredient lists, there are fewer mystery words than on a packet of Twisties. The meals are pretty light too. I calculate I’ve purchased about 45,000kj of food – about six days’ worth of energy for an average woman; or about a month’s worth if you’re Jack Dorsey.
The sodium levels, on the other hand, might raise a nutritionist’s eyebrow. The saltiest dish, sweet potato and bacon fritters, has 1,120 milligrams of it – about half your recommended daily intake. This is likely because your taste buds really do change in the air, leaving your palate less sensitive to sweet and salty tastes. In order for something to taste like anything at all, airline caterers add more to compensate. Umami flavours, on the other hand, aren’t affected by air pressure or dry cabin conditions, and you can see this in the chef’s choices – lots of tomato, lots of soy. Chong tells me that in some airline catering kitchens, they even have a pressurised room to simulate the in-flight environment.
The first dish I try is the Hong Kong style chicken curry, a tricolour of beige, white rice and khaki beans. Frozen solid, it wobbles around in its container, like a piece of Lego. After six minutes in the microwave, it’s ready. It smells faintly edible. I take my first trepidatious bite of chicken and spit it out in horror. It’s soft, wet and yielding, turning to mash in my mouth. I realise it was actually a potato. The real chicken is fine.
Next I try one of the pennes. Even though the pasta is gluten free, it’s still springy. The veggies in the ragù maintain their textural distinction, and the red sauce, while not exactly layered with herbaceous complexity, has the salty satisfaction of a kiddie’s meal. It turns out, all the pasta dishes are simple and satisfying. Though the gluten-free pasta has a better texture than the regular ones, which are about as al dente as a marshmallow in a hot tub.
The best of the lot are the curries. While my memories of food on flights tend to be obscured by a soft blanket of alcohol and sleeping medication, these are better than the sky meals I can recall. There’s a gentle kick of chilli in the rendang, and little bits of coconut for textural contrast. You can actually taste garlic and ginger in the yellow curry.
The savoury breakfasts, however, are villainous. The bacon fritters have the texture of a sponge soaked in vaseline. Many things in this world can be snap frozen, reheated and come out fine; egg-based dishes are not one of them. In the microwave, the mini sausages’ skin burst and peeled back, the innards seeping out from one end. As a nice Jewish girl, with a nice Jewish husband, it’s been years since I’ve seen something that looked like it. But still – $2.
As far as I can tell, the only difference between the clearance meals and the regular ones are the use-by date. We might have a vaccine before the regular ones go bad. There is a clear difference between the vegetarian and meat based dishes though. The meals with meat give me a faint sense of dread with every bite. The vegetarian ones I’d eat regularly. At a time when many people are struggling financially, these meal packs feel like a boon. I can’t imagine being able to cook something better myself for the price – and certainly not as conveniently.
When Chong received his pack of inflight meals, it was an exercise in nostalgia. “The funny thing is, because none of us have been able to fly, we try to get our experience other ways,” he told me. “So I set up a little tray and I put my meal in the tray – just to recreate my airline economy class meal.”
Resigned to the fact that I’m not going anywhere, my encounter makes me hope for a less distant future. After months of working from home, I wonder if my colleagues would judge me for chucking one of these dishes in the office microwave. They do come with rather a lot of single-use plastic.
I decide I wouldn’t care if they did. At this point even a judgmental glare in the shared kitchen would be welcome. Besides, what would they know? They probably paid more than $2 for lunch.