The man who obsesses over SIA's inflight meals
As Singapore Airlines' (SIA) manager of Inflight Services, Mr Hermann Freidanck spearheads the creation of 1,450 different dishes every four months and hones the balance between advance cooking and reheating of meals on board an aeroplane, while also anticipating the drying effects of cabin air which affects people's taste buds.
No stone is left unturned, right down to the compartmentalised aluminium foil packaging of each dish before it is presented to a passenger on board. In short, Mr Freidanck scrutinises all aspects of food and beverage served on board all of SIA's flights. Even if one passenger is allergic to aluminium foil, as Mr Freidanck received an extraordinary special request recently, he will personally ensure that suitable alternative packaging is provided instead.
He has been doing this and more at SIA, for the last 13 years. What distinguishes this 58-year-old German is his knowledge, expertise, systematic delegation, foresight, gumption and a career in hotel management spanning two decades, most of which was spent in Asia.
That background helps him ensure quality inflight meals that meet the expectations of SIA's clientele, usually comprising 60 per cent foreigners and 40 per cent locals - which makes for a broad spectrum of tastes. Mr Freidanck said that 'everyone is contentious when it comes to specific ideas of how certain dishes should taste' because essentially, as he quipped so succinctly, 'my grandmother does a better char kway teow than yours'. He oversees not just the overall production of meals in Singapore, but also the 53 other catering stations in destinations across 63 cities.
Aware of the differences between Western and Asian taste buds, he remarked: 'While Westerners are more inclined to season their food with salt, Asians favour a soya sauce-based flavour. If you were to hand a Westerner a bottle of soya sauce, his initial reaction would be to douse his food with it because it's instinctual. But an Asian would find that doing the same thing with a salt shaker could make the food too salty.' This distinction, Mr Freidanck said, needs to be carefully considered in order to satisfy customers' needs.
Every new route needs time for preparation and SIA's new A380 Singapore-Frankfurt-New York route - which starts Jan 15, 2012 - is no exception. Preparation, which began in June, spanned 20 weeks of intense planning and product specifications that are of the utmost importance in terms of meal types based on class, flight take-off, landing times and the flight's duration.
Mr Freidanck and his team of sous chefs - Mr Simon Loke, 56, Mr Edmund Lee, 45 and Mr Daniel Han, 44, all with varying international experience themselves - ensure that there is a comprehensive selection of meals with an extensive selection of dishes.
To ensure diversity, the frequency and variety of menu changes vary according to class:
First Class dishes are changed every month with a total of 52 dishes prepared for a long-haul return flight.
Business Class dishes are changed twice a month with a total of 40 dishes (excluding soups and salads) prepared for a long-haul return flight.
Economy Class dishes are changed, depending on the destination. If it is a holiday destination where passengers are not likely to be regulars, 25 dishes are offered for a long-haul flight.
The assortment of dishes coupled with SIA's staple of recipes do not include new dishes all the time, but ones which are adapted.
Mr Freidanck was quick to point out the rationale behind SIA's inflight menu.
He said: 'In essence, our main purpose is to transport people from point A to B. We are not a flying restaurant. Our airline dishes are not based on experimentation. Naturally, as SIA is a brand which is expected to deliver quality service, our customers definitely come with expectations. We take feedback about the quality of our products very seriously as part of SIA's commitment to customer satisfaction.'
The team of Chef Loke, Chef Lee and Chef Han supervise menu planning and the operation of four sectors (kitchens) comprising 16 to17 stations per sector.
Mr Freidanck said: 'As a standard, the destination serves as a reference point for the main course. For example, a flight from Singapore to Frankfurt would offer a home dish such as Singapore chicken rice and a native dish of Frankfurt and so forth. These are also complemented by dishes contributed by world acclaimed chefs from SIA's International Culinary Panel.'
He also added: 'Forty original recipe ideas are devised by the International Culinary Panel on a yearly basis and these are then offered based on passenger profile and preferences. No recipes are conspicuously new, but most are adapted from a database containing about 20,000 recipes.'
The Making of SIA's Meals
When The Straits Times Online went on a tour of SATS Ltd Inflight Catering Centre One - which handles all of SIA's catering services alone - it was evident that the quality and consistency of SIA's food standards are rigorously ensured across all catering stations despite the sheer operation size. The Premium kitchen prepares 500 First Class and 2,000 Business Class meals while the Economy Class kitchen prepares 32,000 meals per day (these figures exclude snacks and sandwiches).
Before entering the kitchens, SATS Ltd Catering Airline Relations manager, Mr Garry Yeo, emphasised the importance of hygiene and the prevention of contamination. All employees and visitors are required to wear hair nets, face masks and coats. Mr Yeo also mentioned that the centre was in the midst of 'installing air blowers that will eliminate the remnants of foreign particles on suited-up individuals one final time' before entering the kitchens. No photography or filming is allowed and there were large signs along the way, reminding all to be appropriately attired and to always keep their hands clean.
At the pre-assembly food preparation sector, a production line of four kitchen staff manned the omelette station like clockwork: one oiled the circle of pans, two transferred and cooked the omelettes and the last member removed the omelettes and placed them in a tray, ready for bar coding and blast chilling. As bacteria usually forms between 15 and 55 deg C, all cooked meals in the centre are moved via conveyor belts, into blast chillers for four hours at 2 deg C. This ensures that food stops cooking without too much delay and that bacterial contamination is minimised.
Moving onto the assembly area, we encountered kitchen employees 'calling out' food from the blast chiller storage to be assembled onto their respective aluminium trays for stowage. There was a section in charge of the Economy Class breakfast. One employee measured and dished out the scrambled eggs, using what resembled ice-cream scoops.
At another station, a careful employee measured three dumplings on a weighing machine along with other ingredients such as noodles and vegetables required for a wanton noodle dish. Each SIA dish has a specification card detailing portions, ingredients and a picture of how the dish should eventually look like, so kitchen staff can follow it accurately. In addition, the temperature in all kitchen sectors is moderated between 17 and 20 deg C to maintain a 'colder chain' of food production.
We were also informed that Mr Freidanck and his team of chefs perform samplings at any of the kitchen sectors twice a week. We were also informed that Mr Freidanck and his team of chefs perform random samplings in any sector in the kitchens twice a week. He and his chefs also regularly visit the various catering stations abroad which are required to prepare all dishes served on a particular flight, for further checks and adjustments, based on SIA's four-month cycle plan checklist.
With each new menu, caterers are also required to produce samples for standardisation as well. Another factor taken into consideration is the air on board planes, which is drier. Care is taken to ensure that food is not overcooked or does not lose too much moisture. The new fleet of planes are equipped with convection steam ovens to remedy this and to maintain food freshness, all flight meals are contained in blast chillers at least four hours before their final loading location. They are then loaded onto their designated planes two hours prior to departure.
As for SIA's wine selection, Mr Freidanck explained: 'The purchase and storage of our wines are highly dependent on the type, region, availability and shelf life. For instance, while a Bordeaux needs to be pre-ordered 10 years in advance, a Sauvignon Blanc will only keep for a maximum of 1 1/2 years. The logistics of wine is also an important factor in its availability in terms of space and weight on board. Hence, our wines must be transported to the various catering stations abroad in advance, and based on the meals served.'
Mr Freidanck smiled wryly when he said he looks forward to Mondays at work. He said: 'My Mondays are spent looking at customers' complaints and feedback.'
That of course drives Mr Freidanck to nitpick further over SIA's inflight menu.