The Choreography on the Ground That Puts Meals in the Sky


Millions of people got on planes between Christmas and New Year’s — braving bad weather, armrest hogs and an epic Southwest Airlines meltdown.

Frustration is often a part of flying during the holidays, but if an airline gets things right, the food it serves can take the edge off a long day of travel. If not, a bad meal just compounds the misery.

What does it take for that tray to make its way to you?

Gate Gourmet, a global airline catering company that provides meals to flights out of more than 200 airports, let The New York Times backstage at its operation at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the company’s vast New Jersey building, on any given day hundreds of employees are engaged in a complex choreography to supply meals to about 400 flights.

Inside the kitchen late last month, a team of cooks was busy peeling potatoes, chopping zucchini and simmering an enormous vat of mushrooms. They play a crucial role, but the cooks can’t do anything without the carts, trays and other items cleaned in the dish room and the ingredients stocked in the storeroom.

“Those are the two main focal points of a kitchen,” said Jim Stathakes, a general manager at the Newark building, which spans 290,000 square feet, or about five football fields. “If they’re operating smoothly, the kitchen operates smoothly.”

When a flight served by Gate Gourmet arrives at Newark, the company collects the galley carts that flight attendants push down the aisles, along with the trash and dirty dishes and trays that the carts contain.

In the cavernous dish room, the trash is thrown out, the dishes are washed, and unused, clean items — such as beverage cans, tea bags and creamer — are recovered. The empty galley carts are loaded into an enclosed system resembling a small carwash, where they are cleaned and rinsed in extremely hot water.

In the storeroom nearby, forklifts arrange and rearrange some of the 2,000 pallets loaded up with ingredients for the kitchen. A few hundred pallets with watermelon, strawberries and other fresh items are kept in a produce cooler, while about 500 pallets with meat and other vegetables are kept in a freezer.

Most of the pallets are stacked stories high in the main storeroom and hold a wide array of items, from canned oranges to jars of cornichons to bottles of hot sauce.

To keep food fresh as it is stored, moved, prepared and ultimately delivered, Gate Gourmet uses about 7,000 pounds of ice and about 10,000 pounds of dry ice each day.

On a day in late November, Mark DeCruz, the executive chef at the Newark building, was overseeing work in the hot kitchen, which houses industrial equipment that can steam, bake, dehydrate and smoke food at scale. Giant kettles can be used to make thousands of portions of mashed potatoes, polenta or mushrooms. Depending on the season, the staff’s daily production for flights out of Newark can range from about 15,000 meals to more than 25,000.

The food is prepared slightly differently from the way it would be for meals on the ground. Sensitivity to sweet and salty foods can drop at altitude, so the Gate Gourmet team might increase the salt and sugar in a recipe by 10 percent or so, Mr. DeCruz said. Because umami flavors are sometimes enhanced in the air, many dishes feature mushrooms.

The chefs at Gate Gourmet’s airport locations have latitude to adjust recipes, but Molly Brandt, an executive chef of innovation for the company, gets to create them from scratch. Working alone out of a test kitchen in Miami, Ms. Brandt is charged with pushing the envelope.

In some ways, she tries to design recipes with flying in mind, by incorporating umami flavors or using juicy vegetables and fruit that might be appealing in a dry airplane cabin, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and grapes. But generally, Ms. Brandt tries not to limit herself.

A couple of weeks ago, she was working on recipes for a beef dish for a flight between Europe and the United States, a vegan dish for a flight between the Middle East and India, and another vegan dish for a flight departing the West Coast.

For the beef dish, Ms. Brandt wanted to make something that Americans and Europeans alike would find familiar, so she created a pot roast with Catalan flavors, featuring olives, fennel and orange. For the flight between the Middle East and India, she created a dish inspired by both regions: a roasted cauliflower steak with a turmeric sauce, incorporating pomegranate, dill, chickpeas and garam masala. For the final dish, she created a mushroom mapo tofu lasagna — an adventurous take on a comfort food.

Ms. Brandt regularly confers with Gate Gourmet’s customers and meticulously measures each and every ingredient so it can be scaled up precisely. But creating meals that appeal to all passengers can be difficult, she said.

“Maybe they just want a comforting meal; maybe they need to take a rest right away and they just need something super nutritious,” she said. “We have a lot of things that we have to account for.”

Once hot food is chilled to prevent spoilage and cold items are prepared, workers at the Newark building can begin plating meals for flights to Britain, Brazil, Germany, India, Israel and other destinations near and far.

International lunches and dinners are the hardest to assemble because airlines and passengers expect better quality and better service on those longer, typically more expensive flights. While meals are prepared, as many as 20 trucks are loaded up with shelf-stable items and galley carts. The temperature-sensitive food is loaded last, just before the trucks are ready to go.

To avoid waste because of delays or cancellations, trucks ordinarily don’t leave the building until about two hours before a flight, and Gate Gourmet is in constant communication with its airline customers, which at Newark include United Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Lufthansa, SAS, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. (Gate Gourmet operates kitchens for United at several of its hub airports, including Newark.)

A twin-aisle plane typically requires two trucks, while a single-aisle aircraft needs just one. The Newark facility has 132 trucks and most are used every day, said Mr. Stathakes, the general manager. Spring and summer are the busiest stretch at the facility, and the busiest time of day is late afternoon, right before many flights, particularly international ones, depart.

At night, trucks and teams go out once more to strip incoming planes of their used carts and dishes and start the process all over again.