Air Fare

Heinz Zucchelli, senior production manager for Emirates Flight Catering, talks to Laura Barnes about how he oversees the production of more than 65,000 meals a day

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By  Laura Barnes Published  September 1, 2006

|~||~||~|With over 30 years experience in airline catering, Heinz Zucchelli is well aware of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to producing airline food. After this apprenticeship, Austrian-born Zucchelli took his first job with Ghana Airways before moving to Doha. However, 24 years ago he was head hunted to work for Emirates Flight Catering, managing just 200 staff members. Now with over 3500 staff, this number is expected to rise once a new catering facility has been built to solely look after flight meals for Emirates.

“The company has changed a lot from when I first joined. We are producing an average of 66,000-67,000 meals a day. The record is 73,000 meals, and last month alone we had three days above 70,000,” says Heinz Zucchelli, senior production manager, Emirates Flight Catering.

With 776 staff in the production facility alone, over 80% of the meals produced by Emirates Flight Catering are for Emirates Airline, as well as for Emirates lounges, training college and other off site facilities. At present, Emirates Flight Catering receives 400kg of hammour fillets a day, and produces 70,000 bread rolls, 25,000 croissants and around 15,000 danishes a day. As such, in order to cope with this growing demand, a new catering unit solely dedicated to Emirates will be open by January next year.

Capable of producing 150,000 meals a day, the new 64,000m² facility will be located next to the existing catering unit, and while the facility will eventually be self reliant, some food items will still be made in the old unit.

“I will need around 100 extra production staff for the new facility alone, because if we need a sauce it will not only be made in the old building, but in the new area as well. However it will not be a straight split; bakery products will continue to be made in the old facility, and to begin with meat products will also be portioned in the old facility and transported across,” comments Zucchelli.

However, a lot of time has been spent on how best to serve airlines entering Dubai, and as such, there is a strict system in place to ensure that the food is delivered on time, and with the same level of consistency.

“The whole process begins with purchasing. We know the cost of what we can spend for main items, so this helps formulate our purchasing forecast; special items are then cost separately,” says Zucchelli.

Sourcing produce from around the world, the bulk of ingredients are imported from the UK, Australia, Brazil and France, with fruit and vegetables sourced from the Middle East and India. Being able to source ingredients from across the globe though, means the catering unit does not work with the seasons.

“Sometimes a customer will want seasonal choices, but we cannot do that as we have a contract with the supplier to supply a certain amount each day. That is the only stipulation that we have with our customers, besides that, we produce what they want,” he adds.

Slightly different from working in a restaurant, Zucchelli says it is not up to him to tell his customers what meals are available, and although he may suggest certain food items, at the end of the day the airline decides what it wants to offer its passengers. However, before deciding on a certain menu, a number of meetings are held with the airline.

“We work closely with Emirates proposing different meals, having meetings and creating menus. A lot of corrections later, we take a picture of the final product, note down the ingredients, and weigh the different components of the dish so we know the exact amounts required,” comments Zucchelli.||**|||~||~||~|Because the process is so specific, the Emirates Flight Catering team can accurately predict its production forecast and inform suppliers a month in advance of what ingredients it will need. However, there has to be a degree of flexibility, as Zucchelli and his team will not know until the day if flights will be full, or whether there are any specific requests from flyers; like vegetarian, gluten free, Oriental or seafood requirements.

On a day-to-day basis, Emirates Flight Catering will receive daily flight schedules for all inbound and outbound flights. Although still in paper format, by next month it will have computerised the system in order to cut down on human error.

“We have a daily production plan with all the flights and the meals needed. This then goes to the different kitchen sections; like the hot kitchen, the cold kitchen, butchery and bakery, so they know how much of any one ingredient to produce,” comments Zucchelli.

“For example, the vegetable section will know each day what they need to produce. The meat section however, needs to plan three days in advance in order to defrost the meat and prepare the fillets,” he adds.

Maintaining consistency though is vital, and as such, each process has rigorous checks, including temperature control and weighing each component of the meal.

“I make sure that everything is checked. If you only check certain items; like the core temperature of chicken, or the surface temperature of steak, then you cannot guarantee that staff will remember which items to monitor. So we ensure nothing is missed out,” emphasises Zucchelli.

Monitoring throughout the process is vital, and Zucchelli performs random spot checks, as does Emirates, in order to maintain a high level of consistency.

“Even though we create over 65,000 meals a day we cannot falter on any meal, so the whole team; from the hot kitchen to the fruit kitchen, has to be aware of their role,” says Zucchelli.

Once the food is produced, the plating and labelling is another key area. Taking an average of 30 minutes to dish the food for each flight, each airline uses a coloured foil for different dishes. Special requests also have to be clearly labelled, with around 15% of Emirates food uplift being special meals, ranging from seafood, vegetarian, nut free and wheat free.

After the economy and business class meals have been plated — first class meals on board Emirates Airbus A340-500 are plated on board the plane — the food is then blast chilled.

“The main difference between airline catering and restaurants is that we cook chill, so each hot meal is cooked, blast chilled between 1-3°C and then dished. This is just the hot food, items like sandwiches are chilled instead,” says Zucchelli.

“Once in the air a person loses 30% of their taste buds, so we need to compensate for this by making a really rich sauce, adding extra salt, and generally making sure there is enough flavour to compensate for the loss of taste,” he adds.

More recently, Emirates teamed up with the Jumeirah Hotel Group with each hotel providing a menu for first and business class passengers each month. Working closely with Emirates Flight Catering, each executive chef presented different menus, which Zucchelli narrowed down from 100 to five for his staff members to produce and present to Emirates.

“The Jumeirah chefs had a slightly different vision because they produce a dish that may sell 10 portions in one evening, whereas we will be making over 1000. However, I got my team to make the dishes, and we then invited the chefs to try them,” says Zucchelli.

“They had to agree with what we had done because at the end of the day it is their name and their dish, we didn’t want to undersell them. However, once we agreed on the dish we then presented it to Emirates,” he adds.

Running for a year, the promotion has menus from the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Jumeirah Emirates Towers, among others. Offering items like foie gras, lobster, and top wines and Champagne selected by MMI, Emirates falls in the top five when it comes to airline meal spend.

“We produce more than half of all Emirates meals worldwide, and will soon have the largest catering facility in the world. It is a 24-hour, 365 days a year operation, but I wouldn’t ever go back to a normal kitchen,” says Zucchelli.

“I tell my staff when they first join the company: ‘you don’t learn for me, you don’t learn for the company, you learn for yourself.’ “||**||

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