May 28 2011
As anyone who has ever tried it will tell you, it is not easy running a restaurant. Doing it in a steel tube at 36,000ft, however, is next to impossible, a conclusion sadly reinforced by the dire quality of much in-flight catering. There is, admittedly, a sort of nursery pleasure to be gained from being strapped into a seat and plied with warm mush but – culinary regression notwithstanding – it is hardly gastronomy. The only haute thing about airline cuisine is the plane itself.
Not that this stops airlines enlisting the services of well-known chefs: on the contrary, there are dozens of them. Some are excellent – Peter Gordon’s work with Air New Zealand springs to mind – but I have a suspicion that many of them simply scribble a recipe for their signature dish on the back of a boarding card and leave it to the not-so-tender mercies of the caterers to contort it into something semi-edible.
The rather sleek and wonderful British Airways service from London City to JFK does things a little differently: the star turn is Lawrence Keogh, head cook at Roast, in Borough Market’s old Floral Hall, which, were it not such a resolutely British restaurant, I would describe as a bloody good brasserie. And while the complexities and delights of the Roast menu cannot be entirely replicated in the air, Keogh’s willingness to get his hands dirty and work with the technology available to him pays dividends for the diner.
The flight itself is a joy: the all-business class cabin has just 32 seats, which recline into fully-flat beds; it departs from London’s most civilised airport; and the brief stop in Shannon allows passengers to clear US immigration pre-JFK.
Passengers are served an appetiser on the short hop over the Irish Sea – in my case, appropriately, a salad of sweet Dublin Bay prawns as we cruised over their notional home – and the rest of the meal is served over the Atlantic.
The menu is peppered with British and Irish buzzwords – colcannon, Cashel Blue, piccalilli, Loch Duart salmon, pan haggerty, Wiltshire ham – and, despite the galley’s limitations, Keogh’s artfully designed dishes have a refreshing vitality, and an integrity that comes from using impeccable ingredients. The best food, it is often said, comes from small kitchens: not true, perhaps, of the average hot dog van, but certainly true on BA 001 (British Airways has appropriated the old Concorde flight numbers for the new service).
Keogh’s latest project is to work with artisan producers from around New York – the sort of suppliers who populate the city’s splendid Greenmarket in Union Square, the inspiration for Borough Market – to devise an American menu for the return leg. A Big Apple crumble, perhaps? With crème anglaise, of course.