Aboard Emirates Airlines, every passenger is pleasantly welcomed by the immaculately dressed hostesses. Smiling the whole time, these hostesses offer themselves to you, waiting to attend to your every whim throughout the journey.
Unknown to most passengers is the fact that these hostesses are only a fraction of the bevy of people that make it possible for you to make that trip aboard that aircraft, however short it may be.
For every single passenger that takes a seat in any airplane and successfully takes off from point A for Point B, a minimum of 150 people have worked behind the scenes to make your travel comfortable. For Emirates Airlines, part of this army is locked away in the four sections of Emirates Flight Catering kitchen in Dubai.
Employing at least 430 chefs at every one time, you could call it Emirates’ kitchen, by far the biggest and busiest kitchen I have ever visited.
“We have 135 clients including cargos, VIPs and flights. Emirates is just one of them,” says Jane Marie Zdrojewski, the project and performance manager in the operations department. “For Emirates Airlines alone, we employ 10,500 employees. We handle all of Emirates flight catering needs.
The only things a passenger uses aboard Emirates that we do not handle are pillows, headrests, blankets and napkins; those are outsourced to Denato. Everything else including food and utensils goes through this kitchen.”
Therefore, the food, utensils, children’s accessories such as toys, drinks, socks and shades, name it, are all supplied and catered for in this kitchen. “We are however not responsible for what a passenger gets on board. Emirates tells us what they need for their passengers and we supply it,” says Zdrojewski.
The bulk of these needs fall under meals and all the things that come with feeding people such as clean utensils and cutlery.
Emirates Flight Catering operates in four sections; the dishing room, the hot kitchen, the cold kitchen and the pastry kitchen.
The dishing room: Handling 3.5m pieces a day
I don’t exactly know how I ended up there but suddenly, we are being shown through a floor where machines are rolling with dishes in different states of washing.
The staff here is busy at different points, shining the cutlery, loading the reels with dirty dishes, pushing around carts of dirty dishes and so much more activity. We are at the dishing room, which is more like a floor of activity than a room.
This is where dishes are cleaned and packed ready for loading onto the aircraft. “We handle about 3.5m pieces of kitchen equipment every day,” offers Zdrojewski. These pieces include cups, plates, cutlery, napkins, toothpicks and many other items.
The caterers have the time between when an aircraft lands and when it takes off to strip it of all food and equipment used for the previous flight and reload it with the necessary amenities for the next flight, however short the period.
The turnaround period presents one of the kitchen’s biggest challenges, which Zdrojewski refers to as the logistics of supply and delivery.
Sometimes, a flight will be on time, which gives the caterers ample time to prepare the flight for the next group of passengers. But even when it has delayed, there is no room for error for the caterers; they still have to ably replenish the plane in time for the next flight.
“Also, until the last hour before takeoff, the passenger manifest is not certain and we always have to be ready to provide enough for every passenger, without fail,” she says. “We have to meet, strip, wash, repack, study the schedule and reload.
It is an ever moving target and we have to continue chasing them until at least one hour before flight.” The food is delivered into high loaders 25-40 minutes early to the aircraft, depending on where it is packed at the airport.
The food: Making 180,000 meals a day
Before we are let onto the kitchen premises, we are required to fill in forms to indicate that we do not have any health issues that will compromise the safety of the kitchen’s output.
We are provided hair nets and long-sleeved white jackets to ensure that nothing such as hair drops in the food. Only then are we declared ready for the tour.
All the staff have their hair and bodies covered in hair nets and coats. Everything they wear that is branded such as sweaters is provided at the kitchen.
There are placards on the walls in different sections reminding the staff of what to avoid to ensure maximum safety of the food they produce in the kitchen.
“We are responsible for the safety of the food and drinks aboard those airlines so we cannot take any chances.
Unfortunately, when people get sick, they usually assume the last thing they ate caused the problem,” explains Zdrojewski. “We get cases, anywhere between one and 20 a month but none has ever been proven.”
Emirates Flight Catering has engineered a process of ensuring food safety over the years. When the fresh food is delivered, it is off-loaded into different colour plastic crates to indicate how long it has been in the store.
The turnover rate in the store room is a maximum of three days, meaning food can only stay as long as three days in the kitchen and it is offloaded. The pink crates for instance are loaded with food that will be used next while the blue crates have food that was just delivered.
Also, only non-food items such as plastic, aluminum, paper, glass and card board are recycled from the planes. Otherwise, everything else is disposed of even if it was not touched.
“If a bottle of wine was opened on the flight, we dispose of it. For the ones not opened, we check the use by date before deciding whether they can be used or not,” emphasises Zdrojewski.
Otherwise, the kitchen uses only fresh, not frozen, fruits and vegetables to eliminate all risk of food poisoning.
“There is nothing we do to your food that you would not do at home. We cook serve marinate…no preservatives,” reassures Zdrojewski.
At some point, we go through a section that emits a heavenly aroma, with pastries in crates lined against the walls, and chefs busy in different stages of the bakery at different tables.
This section, like all the other sections is spotless. There is staff busy with brooms at all levels ready to catch whatever dirt makes it to the floor. “This is where all our baking is done,” explains Glory Kinyua, the operations manager planning and communications, showing us the special birthday cake made on order.
We soon go through a warm section where soups, rice and other food is being prepared and packed, which we are told is the hot kitchen, and eventually find ourselves on a floor which feels like walking into a fridge.
“This is the cold kitchen, where meals such as salads are handled and stored,” explains Zdrojewski. The staff here is, of course, dressed for winter, and we cannot stay for long in our light clothing. It is cold!
It takes us about three hours to get through the four sections. At the end, with our feet aching and our heads throbbing from all the insight we just got about the behind the scenes operations of the airlines, we walk out discussing how much money it must take to run such a kitchen. “I can tell you anything and everything but that,” says Zdrojewski, with finality.
We know then that we shall never get an answer to that question but we have an idea where some of all that money we pay for an air ticket goes.
Managing the process
On average, the caterers prepare 180,000 meals a day for Emirates flight passengers only, according to Glory Kinyua, the operations manager planning and communications.
While the kitchen prepares and provides the menu and non-menu requirements such as alcohol, chocolates and other edibles not part of the menu, it is the client that determines what will be served on their flights.
The flights also provide the utensils per their standards, so all plates, cups, cutlery and other kitchen ware is provided by Emirates Airlines as per their brand image and standards.
To handle the workload, the kitchen is part mechanised, part manual. The equipment is manually loaded onto reels for different levels of cleaning and drying but they are assembled and packed manually.
The kitchen does not compromise on food safety. Handbags and all other personal items such as mobile phones are left at the entrance and thorough health checks done before admission to the kitchen.
No food, not even a bottle of water, is let onto the premises as the kitchen needs to be able to account for everything that enters and leaves the kitchen in case of a lawsuit. This also requires them to set specific standards for their suppliers.
The kitchen staff structure comprises the head chef, executive service chef, and general assistants. Everybody is taken through food safety training. At a time, there are 610 chefs on duty, and about 160,000 employees for Emirates as a client alone.