I was hired at Crazy Ant Airline Catering for my second job. It was a huge operation. There were, at the time, 8 of us junior and senior cooks – cooking for 6,000 people – daily. We worked individually, had lots of space, and were roughly divided into 3 different shifts depending on the airlines’ times of departure.
(If you haven’t seen the first part yet, I suggest you read that first.)
Now, this was a fun job – for a while. It’s a new and emerging market that wasn’t there when taverns in France were dishing out meals to travelers in the 18th century. With more and more people traveling for work or pleasure, there’s nowhere for this industry to go but up. Huge International Airline companies spent good money to ensure food safety. What difference does a restaurant or hotel kitchen have with an airline catering kitchen?
There were CCTV cameras literally everywhere except for the changing rooms and the toilets. There were forms on clipboards hanging by the blast freezers and walk-in chillers we all had to fill out and sign regarding the internal temperatures of the meats we cooked, how long it took to cook and then cool down, and much more. All staff with no exception, even if you were as bald as an eagle, had to wear hairnets before entering the food processing, cooking and packaging area. Single-use rubber gloves always had to be used when handling food. These and the cleanliness of everything (cotton-swab lab test) were periodically checked by auditing teams. It was a multi-million dollar, no-nonsense business, after all.
Growing up, I had the good fortune to have traveled some parts of the world with my family, and whenever we flew, I enjoyed the airplane meals thoroughly. I didn’t mind that it was always soft and a little bland. Perhaps it was similar to opening a wrapped present, despite knowing what it was going to be. The tray of little containers for each course never stood a chance. I always finished everything.
It wasn’t an easy job. With the amount of food that had to be cooked, it was always a fast paced rhythm we had to keep – sort of like sprinting but with our hands, feet and mind in full exertion. From the moment we clocked in, it was break-neck speeds of retrieving mise-en-place in several full trolleys about the size of 4-seater golf carts on its side, finding the equipment and tools we needed to get the job done, and then a little politics which involved making deals with the cooks from the other kitchens because they needed some of the same tools and equipment too.
We had to plan the day well and efficiently or else we would have to do overtime, which none of us want to do. All the vegetable and meat preparations were done by a different team. I was part of the cooking team, so our job for 9 hours was to cook a shit-load of food in giant vats, ovens, steamers and boilers.
We had cooking pots big enough to crawl inside, steamer-ovens big enough to cook a trolley full of trays and food pans of food (or maybe 2 grown men, abreast) and spatulas the size of a shovel.
Everyday I had to make 400 breakfast omelettes in 3 hours, or else I wouldn’t have had time to do the sauces, the vegetables and the meats. That comes out to 2.2 omelettes a minute. An impossible feat if you did them one at a time. So it was up to us to learn to make as many at once as possible. I started with 4, then slowly worked my way up to 8 omelettes in 8 different pans at the same time. Each batch of 8 took roughly 4 minutes, which was good enough. It was lightning fast, I tell you, and I was proud of the work I did – even if I would have (nightmarish) dreams of omelettes that year.
As you can see, this was a completely different monster of a job compared to the usual daily prep and service of a restaurant or hotel. It was mass catering that required some similar skills as a regular line cook and some different ones. It was more like a round-the-clock assembly line than anything else; but that doesn’t mean the food is cooked without care or attention.
Taste seemed to be the least of their concerns. Since I knew how bland airplane food tasted most of the time, I always added more flavor than I thought a dish needed: I seasoned more and added more spices and herbs. After some research, I found out that for most of us in a high altitude and pressurized cabin setting (like that of a plane in flight), our taste buds and sense of smell are thoroughly numbed down, hence, the blandness we’re so familiar with. No wonder.
After 3 months, I had become proficient at the job enough to stop struggling through the day. It was still as fast-paced as ever, but I had developed my own styles and techniques that were committed to muscle memory, which allowed my mind to roam free and think about other things.
I was heavily into drinking and broken with unrequited love at the time, so I spent many days in a daze from lack of sleep, sometimes falling into a micro-sleep while standing – the continuity of my work broken by a lapse in wakefulness.
After some time, I began to find the job boring. Again. It was the same routine, day in and day out. The challenge was there: the stress, pressure, physical and mental strain – but something was lacking. I didn’t find out what that was until much later.
Despite all the pain and struggle I lived through with this job, I recall it with fondness, and I remember all the trials, hurdles and then surpassing them with the help and support of the crew. They were always helpful and eager to train the newcomers; they were respectful and kind – except maybe for a hitch here and there.
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