For most frequent travelers, airline meals are an aspect of flying that is more endured than enjoyed. In fact, the late Julia Child was famous for bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on transatlantic flights, proclaiming, “They even stay good for a day or two if you don’t eat them all on the plane.”
One notable exception has always been the airline of Switzerland, first Swissair (March 1931 to March 2002), and its reincarnation on April 1, 2002 as SWISS International Air Lines (www.swiss.com). Like its predecessor, SWISS has carried on the tradition of Swiss hospitality, as practiced in the country’s luxury hotels, in the air. A large part of that hospitality comes in the form of excellent onboard meals. For the past 14 years, SWISS has relied upon a host of talented Swiss regional chefs to create special dishes for onboard service in their first and business-class cabins in the SWISS Taste of Switzerland program.
SWISS head of Inflight, American-born Sarah Klett-Walsh, is responsible for all cabin services including food and beverage. Having begun her career with airline catering companies in Switzerland and Hong Kong, she was uniquely qualified to take over inflight services and to implement the SWISS Taste of Switzerland program with the formation of SWISS in 2002: “Whenever someone flies with us, we want to treat them to Swiss hospitality. Our Swissness is especially important to us when it comes to the food and drink that we serve on board. We want to offer top quality here combined with good variety, and our SWISS Taste of Switzerland program provides the perfect foundation and framework for this.”
“We attach great importance at SWISS to serving authentic, balanced, and healthy meals. And our first and business class passengers on our long-haul flights from Switzerland can enjoy dishes that have been specially created as part of our SWISS Taste of Switzerland concept. We launched it back in 2002, and we’ve been developing it continuously since then. We also won the International Travel Catering Association’s prestigious Mercury Award for it in 2004.”
Since its inception, SWISS Taste of Switzerland has worked with more than 50 of the highest quality Swiss hotels and restaurants, holding an entire galaxy of Michelin stars among them. The chefs come from almost every canton of Switzerland and have all placed their own unique stamp on the dishes from their native regions that they translated into courses to be served in the first and business-class cabins.
Walsh tells me: “There’s a real creative exchange for our SWISS people and for the staff at Gate Gourmet, our catering supplier. Each chef brings his or her own new ideas, methods, and creations into the work process, and that’s a constant challenge for us and our partners. It’s quite a challenge for the guest chefs, too: the conditions in an aircraft galley are completely different from those in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant.
When it comes to choosing the meals we need to ensure that they’ll still taste good when they’ve been reheated, because a lot of these items have to be pre-cooked by Gate Gourmet on the ground and heated up on board. As another criterion, the meals also have to be storable in our catering trolleys, so they mustn’t exceed a certain height. So all in all, our guest chefs need to show a lot of creativity, and a fair amount of flexibility, too!”
Too long to enumerate completely, the list of their chefs includes all the most revered names in Swiss cuisine today. Among them are such luminaries as Pierre-André Ayer of Restaurant Le Pérolles in Fribourg; Reto Mathis, Food Affairs, St. Moritz; Othmar Schlegel, Hotel Castello del Sole, Ascona; Silvia Manser, Restaurant Truube, Appenzell; Andre Jaeger, Restaurant Fischerzunft, Schaffhausen; August Minikus, Restaurant Hotel Römerhof, Aarbon; and Tanja Grandits, Restaurant Stucki, Basel.
Aside from Switzerland’s star chefs, SWISS onboard meals also offer vegetarian options prepared by Hiltl, Zürich’s renowned restaurant that was the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe. SWISS has also partnered with The Peninsula, Hong Kong; Oberoi Catering; and Restaurant Mikuni to provide meals for flights originating in South Asia and Japan.
Narrowing down the chefs to profile here wasn’t easy, but eventually it became apparent that one each from the three main linguistic areas would be appropriate. Included are Andreas Schwab, the chef/partner at Ristorante Tentazioni in the northern part of Italian-speaking canton Ticino; Beat Schittenhelm from Boutique Chalet Hotel Ahorn in German-speaking canton Glarus southeast of Zürich; and Dominique Gautier who heads the kitchen of Le Chat Botté at the Hotel Beau Rivage in French-speaking Geneva.
With luminaries such as these chefs alternating three times each year, SWISS Taste of Switzerland promises us a long and delicious future in the air.