The process starts long before you're served dinner in your seat.

By Talia Avakian
July 18, 2019
Ingredients like passion fruit are used to pack a powerful punch.
| Credit: Talia Avakian

Creating thousands of dishes each day, all while picking the right ingredients for the skies and adhering to tight timing can be an immensely complicated feat. To get the full scoop on what goes into creating the food that lands on our trays in the skies, Travel + Leisure stepped into Emirates’ sprawling catering facility in Dubai.

The facility, where meals are made for the airline's flights, its lounges, and for over 100 airlines that fly in and out of Dubai International Airport and Al Maktoum International Airport, is considered the largest of its kind in the world.

And a look inside reveals just how much detail goes into creating a meal before it even makes it to the aircraft.

From how menu items are selected and what ingredients are used to how meals differ within each cabin and the innovative tools used to make it all possible, here’s an inside look at the incredible process.

Gearing up:

Staff members are required to wear specific uniforms when entering the catering facility.
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Maintaining strict hygiene and security when preparing over 20,000 meals a day is essential, which is why the facility has tight measures in place. After going through security, staff are required to wear protective garments, hair nets and shoes to maintain safety on slippery surfaces.

The attire includes mandatory shoes that staff members change into to avoid slipping on the facility's floors and for hygiene purposes.
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The facility even has an air shower that staff use when entering the production area, standing in the machine to get blasted by air to remove any foreign objects, like hair, from clothing.

An air shower removes debris like hair from clothing.
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Scan and store:

Products coming into the facility are scanned and sent through for storage.
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Items coming into the facility need to go through security as well, with products like fruits and vegetables scanned through X-ray machines before they’re put into storage. The items held in storage at the main facility are used within one to two days, with the airline hosting a sprawling storage facility used solely for bulk food items like Basmati rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar, in another location in Dubai.

Large chillers are used to keep fresh items at specific temperatures for safety.
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Items like dairy products are stored into the facility's chillers.
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More than 500 tons of fruits like cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple are used in a year. The airline has over 60 selections of cheese in its network alone, which come from different countries across the globe.

Getting clean:

Machines with plastic holders allow cups and chinaware to dry quickly after getting washed.
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Time is of the essence, which is why once trollies from previous flights land in the facility, all dirty items are removed for staff to clean. There is an entire area devoted to washing items, with staff washing millions of dishes and cutlery sets every day. The facility has eight different machines used to wash items, with even the carts washed after each flight.

All blankets and items like mattresses used during flights are also washed in an area of the facility.
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Items like pillows, blankets and mattresses are also washed in the facility.

Time to cook:

Hot dishes are prepared and plated to be loaded on aircraft for upcoming flights.
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Since safety regulations often prohibit the use of open-flame grills on commercial aircraft, hot food selections are prepared beforehand and then frozen to specific temperatures (which are checked by an in-house hygiene team) and then reheated by cabin crew members using convection ovens in the aircraft.

Kitchens are split between an area devoted solely to cold food selections, an area for hot food selections and a kitchen for pastries and desserts.

Cold foods:

Seared tuna is cut to prepare appetizer selections.
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In the cold kitchen, staff will dish out items that include fruit platters, sandwiches and appetizers like the canapés offered to first class passengers. The airline works with chefs from Dom Pérignon to create specialty canapes, with options that range from confit duck with curried pineapple to a poached prawn and guacamole tartlet.

Emirates employees prepare canape selections served in first class.
| Credit: Talia Avakian

Catering to each cabin:

Sauces and condiments are prepackaged to make service speedy for crew members during flights.
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Most first-class dishes are plated onboard, while business class dishes are pre-plated for crew to add the last final garnishes onboard. All economy dishes are pre-plated in the facility. Everything from salad dressings to soy sauces that accompany dishes are prepared beforehand to ensure crew can have a meal service that runs efficiently.

Heating up:

Hot dishes are prepared to be served within strict time limits.
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In the hot kitchen area, all food items are cooked until they reach a core temperature of about 149 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, they’re placed on a conveyor belt to go through a spiral glass chiller.

A dedicated hygiene department checks chilled items for temperature, with all food items barcoded with their quality and temperature and taken into storage. Chefs will prepare meals eight hours before a flight, with hot food items having a shelf life of 72 hours, though the team typically works within a 43-hour time period.

Planning and prepping:

Dishes range from tomato concoctions served in espresso cups to stir fried Chinese noodles and spiced chicken dishes.
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Emirates updates its menu monthly, working with regional partners in each location to create dishes suited specifically to the area. Since chefs need to import certain ingredients, like meat and seafood, orders need to be placed as far as eight months in advance, which is why the airline is already working on their menu selections for 2020.

Picking the right ingredients:

Pictured are finished canapé selections served to first class passengers.
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For James Griffith, vice president of culinary at Emirates, while commercial aircraft provide a more dry atmosphere and higher pressure, the advances in today's aircraft make having a meal in the skies similar to having a meal in the Alps. To combat these slight variations, the airline focuses on providing ingredients that have strong, sweet and pungent flavors that include acidic foods like tomatoes and olive oil, and citrus-based ingredients like passion fruit.

Pictured here are one of the meal selections served to passengers.
| Credit: Talia Avakian

The airline even use a specialty cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil created by the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio in Umbria, where olives are still picked by hand.

Stews, spices, and stocks:

Pictured here are a range of dished served to passengers during flights.
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Indian dishes are also a popular option to use thanks to the heavy use of spices, which help maintain flavor. Griffith also finds that sauces work best for reheating dishes to maintain moisture, which is why options like osso buco and beef bourguignon are popular choices.

Tricky treats to take to the skies:

Cabin crew will heat meals in the aircraft ovens for in-flight meal services.
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A difficult item to prepare for flights is steak, due to the fact that crew members need to reheat hundreds of them to particular consistencies. Whole muscle meats are typically seared on all sides and cooked until the color changes, with crew then required to follow specific temperature and cooking guidelines to ensure it comes out in the right temperature for a passenger.

Breaking bread:

Bread selections featured at Emirates' airport lounges in Dubai.
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Bread can also be a tricky item, since it needs to be refrigerated for hygiene purposes, which can cause it to dry out.

Bread can also quickly dry out when left open in dry aircraft cabins, which is why staff reduce baking time for services like afternoon tea, where sliced bread is used. This is the same reason why sandwiches or items with sliced breads are typically tightly packed until opened for consumption to help them stay soft for as long as possible.

Sometimes, carriers add additives to prevent foods like these from drying out, according to Griffith, but Emirates' bakers are adamant about using natural products, which is why the team spent time finding a high-quality French flour that helps breads maintain their texture longer.

Meals for economy and crew:

Crew prepare carts to be taken to the aircraft.
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Serving and clearing meal services for some 300 passengers can be a complex process, which is why when it comes to economy meals the airline has shifted from whole muscle meats to items like stews with cubed portions. Crew members also have a separate menu, which typically includes selections like salad and packed sandwiches, which are also prepared in the facility.

Sweet selections:

Pictured are some of the sweet selections Emirates offers.
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Pastry items can also be one of the most difficult items to prepare since they have tighter time restrictions due to ingredients like gelatins. They only have a 48-hour allowance from the time they’re prepared to when they’re served, with transportation of the foods by trucks to the aircraft taking 40 minutes alone.

The pastry process:

Desserts are prepared and packaged for passengers.
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Pastries for economy are made on an assembly line and typically include three components: something with texture like cookie crumbs or chocolate pieces, a mousse (typically passion fruit or mango) and a garnish on top. Premium cabin pastries are prepared by hand on tables, though all desserts are made fresh as opposed to frozen, which does mean a shorter shelf life but helps to ensure higher quality.

High-tech tools:

A machine cuts cakes to exact measurements using high pressure.
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The facility is home to innovative instruments like the hydro processor, which uses high-pressure water to cut through pieces of cake to ensure uniform sizes and minimal waste. The pressure is so strong that it can even cut through bone, which is why the airline also uses it to cut meats.

The catering facility houses a monorail system that is used to transport items from one area to the other.
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The airline also has an electric monorail system that it uses to transport meal carts throughout the massive facility. The monorail spans more than 8,000 feet in length and has drop-off and pick-up points throughout the facility.

Prepped and plated:

Bulk items are loaded while trays are set up before crew board the aircraft.
| Credit: Talia Avakian

In the flight preparation area, staff will put together tray sets to precise specifications and load them onto trolleys that will then be transported through the monorail system. This way, cabin crew simply need to heat the food selections and load them onto the plated trays during in-flight service. Every product has its own position, with 1,000 trays done in 11 hours. Staff have photographs showing how each tray should be plated, with trays assembled into carts that are then stored into chillers and arranged for each flight.

Guidelines show the items and placing of food selections on trays for staff.
| Credit: Talia Avakian

Down to the detail:

Cutlery is polished and separated to prepare trays for upcoming flights.
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No detail is spared, with staff manually wiping and rolling more than 20,000 sets of cutlery in 24 hours.

Even the cutlery has specified standards to ensure uniformity for passengers.
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There are even guidelines on how cutlery should look on the plate, with the airline remaining one of the few that continues to use stainless steel cutlery on economy cabins as well.

Adding the last touches:

Items like amenity packs are also prepared at the catering facility in Dubai.
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In-flight magazines, amenity kits and the range of regional wines and spirits found on flights are also prepped in the facility.

Passengers will find premium spirit selections on flights, with options ranging depending on the cabin.
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As the last steps approach, staff are often ready for unexpected changes that can include a last minute request (passengers sometimes come on a new flight as little as one hour before departure) and changes in aircraft that can mean varied needs for amenities like blankets and linens based on the configuration.

Crew will conduct a final check to make sure all items are in place for upcoming flights.
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The trucks used to transport the trolleys have refrigeration to keep food at the right temperatures, and in cases of delays, if the airline can keep food items temperature controlled, it will hold them on the aircraft.

Take off:

Carts will be loaded from the catering facility onto trucks that then transport the items to the aircraft.
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Once everything is ready, the trolleys are loaded onto trucks that then transport materials to the aircraft. Thanks to the large size of the Airbus A380, Emirates has even created a special truck suited just for the aircraft.

The high loader was made to accommodate the upper first-class galley located above the wing, allowing it to safely lift over the wing and extend to the fuselage without tipping over and damaging the wing. A loading platform also allows the high loader to avoid wind issues thanks to the large heights it can reach.