Chefs give new meaning to haute cuisine : Michelin restaurants serve up classy meals on low-cost flights

There is nothing new about the popularity of Korean food among flight passengers. Asiana Airlines and Korean Air first introduced ssambap (veggies and rice wraps) and bibimbap (rice with vegetables and meat) around 20 years ago and both have become their symbolic in-flight menus.

But amid the rising international popularity of Korean food, airlines have begun to compete to provide more haute Korean cuisine on more air routes. While in-flight meals developed by Michelin star chefs are being provided to economy class passengers, Korean dishes are being distributed on routes outside Korea.




he history of providing Korean menus on flights began in 1995 when Asiana introduced kimchi, despite its negative perception among foreigners because of its strong smell. Korean Air soon followed by providing bibimbap in 1997. 

Ever since, Korea’s two largest flag carriers have continued to beef up the quality of their in-flight meals. Korean Air, for example, uses beef and chicken raised at its ranch near Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, while Asiana Airlines works with the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine and Italian restaurant La Cucina for its meals.

“Korean passengers expect the quality of in-flight service to be as high as Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, whichever airline they fly on,” said Lee Mun-jeong from Air France-KLM. “Ever since the two airlines began providing hansik (Korean food), the number of passengers seeking hansik has jumped, forcing even foreign airlines to make changes.”

Foreign airlines that used to simply only serve bibimbap as their in-flight Korean meal recently began to conduct experiments on diversifying the menus. Singapore Airlines, for example, formed a partnership with the Michelin-starred restaurant Jung Sik Dang. 



  Chef Yim Jung-sik from the Michelin-starred Jung Sik Dang has designed a menu for Singapore Airlines featuring beef ribs, grilled swordfish and corn mousse cake. [SINGAPORE AIRLINES]

Throughout September, Korean cuisine developed by Yim Jung-sik, a chef at Jung Sik Dang, will be provided to passengers en route from Incheon to Singapore. 

“Even before Michelin was announced [last year], we began negotiating with Jung Sik Dang to cater Korean food on the plane,” said a source from Singapore Airlines. “We are receiving advice from internationally renowned chefs like Gordon Ramsay, and are providing prestigious food like kaiseki [a traditional, multi-course Japanese meal] from the [three-Micheline-starred] Kikunoi in Kyoto. We are putting particular effort into the quality of in-flight meals.”

Then what menus has chef Yim developed for Singapore Airlines’ passengers? First-class passengers are served a four-course menu. The main dish menu consists of steam-cooked black cod, grilled lobster and maesaengi (seaweed rice porridge). The first-class passengers are also served healthy desserts like corn mousse cake. Business-class passengers can enjoy a three-course menu. The main dish menu is braised beef ribs, pork belly with assorted vegetables or grilled tuna bibimbap. Economy-class passengers have the option of bibimbap with either beef or pork. Instead of the usual gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), perilla oil is used as the main sauce.


Premium meals to lure passengers


In-flight meals on flights from Korea are prepared at Incheon International Airport by two specialized catering enterprises: Korean Airlines and LSG Sky Chefs. 

Currently, all airlines that take off from Korea serve meals from the two firms, meaning even the menus developed by chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants are made based on the recipes provided by the catering services. 

Those airliners that actively promote in-flight meals under the title of chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants often drop by the catering firms to check on the quality of food and change menus once every two to three months. 

“Though in-flight meals provided to economy class passengers have been generally standardized, menus developed for business and first-class passengers are continuously being developed,” said Kim Gi-jin from LSG Sky Chefs. “This is an investment to lure loyal customers amid the growing market share of low-cost carriers.”



  Left: Chef Jung Chan-wook serves a passenger on a Hawaiian Airlines flight. Right: Steamed beef and burdock roots by Jung. [HAWAIIAN AIRLINES]

Some airlines even formed partnerships with popular celebrity chefs. Chef Jung Chan-wook, who gained popularity by starring on the JTBC cooking program “Please Take Care of My Refrigerator” (2014-present) and is also running a restaurant, Bistrot Chaugi, began designing in-flight meals for Hawaiian Airlines in December. 

Based on his experience studying in Hawaii, he serves various fusion dishes. Menus include steamed beef and burdock roots, macadamia nut cookies and Japanese miso soup.

On Jan. 6, Jung boarded a Hawaiian Airlines flight to hold a special event, where he personally cooked for passengers. 

“Amid the rising popularity and interest in star chefs in Korea, we decided to form a partnership with Jung Chan-wook, who has close ties with Hawaii,” said Yoo soo-jin from Hawaiian Airlines. “Reservations for the flight Chef Jung was going to board closed very quickly thanks to his popularity.”



  Millennium Seoul Hilton’s beef japchae (stir-fried noodles) served on a Lufthansa flight. [LUFTHANSA AIRLINE]

Efforts to form partnerships 

Foreign airlines’ efforts to form partnership with Korean restaurants began ten years ago. 

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines signed a partnership with a Korean restaurant, Yongsusan, in 2007, which created buzz for introducing high-quality cuisine from Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) as part of its in-flight meals. The Dutch airline changed its partner to a different Korean restaurant, Samcheonggak, in 2014. 

“In order to find an appropriate Korean restaurant, we searched for and tried food from myriad Korean restaurants,” said Kim Mi-young from KLM. “Though there were a number of restaurants that serve visually appealing and fancy food, the most important factor for us was taste.” 

Similarly, Germany’s Lufthansa Airline signed a contract with Millennium Seoul Hilton Hotel in 2009. Also, Air France formed a partnership with Woonsan in April 2016; business passengers traveling from Paris to Incheon can now enjoy food by Woonsan’s chef Kim Yoon-young. 

“Since Korean dishes include lots of vegetables, foreign passengers can see Korean food is healthy,” said Kim, “ultimately leading them to order Korean cuisine on flights. And because their sense of taste is diminished in a pressurized cabin, Korean food, which is spicy and salty, is being well received.”


Good food isn’t just for larger airlines

Delicious airline meals that were usually only available on big airlines like Korean Air have even become available on low-cost carriers, as they have started signing partnerships with various food companies. 

But instead of signing contracts with fancy restaurants, they formed partnerships with comparatively cheaper food stores or convenience stores. 

Korea’s Eastar Jet signed a contract with GS Retail in 2015. The airline serves GS Retail’s lunch boxes, travel goods and daily necessities, earning the title “on-flight convenience store.” Another domestic low-cost carrier, T’Way Air, similarly signed a contract with a hand-made cake store, Jiyugaoka, located in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, and sells its cakes on flight. 

Even foreign low-cost carriers have begun serving delicious food on flight. 

Vietnam’s VietJet Air, for example, signed a partnership with fast-food restaurant franchise Lotteria in 2015, and has been serving its rice burgers. It even flies an airplane featuring Lotteria’s logo.

Jeju Air is currently making and serving private-branded products instead of signing contracts with restaurants. 

Among the exclusive food it serves, tangerine juice, horse beef jerky and black pork jerky are three of the most well-received. 

From Joongang Daily, Korea