Originally written for CNN
From boxed sandwiches and salads in plastic tubs to fine dining.
The world’s gastronomic masters are now using airports for their new restaurant openings.
Heston Blumenthal is the latest big name chef to open an air hub establishment.
The Perfectionist’s Café will open at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 2 on June 4.
While Blumenthal is best known for molecular gastronomy, his new diner with a wood-fired oven makes it the first British airport kitchen with an open flame.
Fire safety and security are just two major hurdles for the potential airport restaurateur.
Gas can’t be used in the kitchens in most airports, food suppliers have to go through security clearance and perhaps most daunting of all, customers sometimes have as little 15 minutes to spend on the meal.
Blumenthal isn’t the first culinary superstar to take on the challenge.
Gordon Ramsay opened Plane Food at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2008, Spain’s Carles Gaig has a modern Catalan joint at Barcelona-El Prat and in North America, Los Angeles International and Toronto Pearson International are just two restaurants that have attracted restaurants from local celebrity cooks.
More people, more stomachs
Air travel has roughly doubled since 2003, with the International Civil Aviation Authority reporting that airlines served 3.1 billion passengers in 2013 compared with 1.6 billion a decade ago.
Airports are an integral part of that experience now, moving away from being mere gateways.
“It’s what the airport environment does to you,” says Heathrow Airport’s head of food and beverage Ben Crowley.
“Eighty percent of our flights are long haul, which means the bulk of the passengers are on a big trip and therefore in the mood for an indulgence.”
Advances in kitchen technology mean the no-gas policy is not the obstacle it once was.
“Electric heat is far better than what it used to be 10 years ago,” says Sophie Michell, executive chef of London’s Pont St restaurant and one of the four British celebrity chefs who have collaborated to open The Gorgeous Kitchen, an upmarket restaurant at Heathrow’s Terminal 2.
“You just have to think about different ways to add flavor and cook quickly. For example, you can get good caramelization with a heavy-bottomed saucepan on induction hobs, which now have quick reactions and reach high temperatures.”
A greater range of food suppliers are now authorized by airports, too.
“We’re able to use ingredients from artisanal suppliers — previously only the big suppliers were able to get through,” Michell says.
Still, there are additional expenses — airport restaurants pay higher staff wages to persuade employees away from central locales.
They also tend to serve smaller parties than city restaurants and diners typically spend less.
“Though individual table checks are lower than on the high street, an airport restaurant gets much more exposure, with millions of people passing by every year,” says Sebastian Rotteveel, creator of The Gorgeous Kitchen concept and senior director of marketing at hospitality company HMSHost International.
Thousands of servings
Take Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food.
Around 20,000 diners are served every month.
The restaurant receives hundreds of visitors a day, serving dishes such as braised pork belly and cod ceviche.
“Travelers have become a lot more demanding,” Heathrow’s Crowley says. “They eat out more and expect more when they come through the airport.”
These days, the greatest limitation of the airport restaurant is security, says Anthony Russell, restaurant manager at Ramsay’s Plane Food.
Kitchen knives need to be kept under strict eye, and suppliers and staff must pass through security clearance.
“Produce delivery becomes a challenge,” Russell says.
“You have to be organized and resourceful, but there is [still] no calling a supplier for an emergency delivery if you run out after lunch.”
Of course, quality airport dining isn’t the exclusive domain of celebrity chefs.
At Munich Airport, voted the world’s best airport for dining in the 2013 Skytrax Awards, travelers can find Europe’s only airport brewery, Airbräu.
Airbräu is a success because, like Hung’s Delicacies in Hong Kong International Airport (voted second in the Skytrax awards), it’s an authentic piece of its home culture, giving travelers a unique sense of place in the airport land-between-lands.
“A Bavarian restaurant serving local beer from its own brewery differentiates Munich Airport from other European airports,” says Gerhard Halamoda, head of Munich Airport’s hospitality operator Allresto.
“Twenty years ago, customers would use an airport once or twice a year, and restaurateurs could get away with an expensive, mediocre experience.
“Now, people fly frequently and if they have a good time at our airport, next time they’re more likely to transfer through Munich rather than, say, Amsterdam or Frankfurt.”