If an army marches on its stomach, then it's increasingly true that airlines are trying to win the war for business class travellers' loyalty the same way.
The provisions emerging from the respective galleys of Australia's two leading airlines, Virgin Australia and Qantas, have become a key battleground after the cut-price Virgin Blue operation morphed into the full-service Virgin Australia and took on Qantas's virtual monopoly on business class travel.
When people are in the air they want it simple.Luke Mangan
The pair has since gone blow-for-blow on planes, seats, pricing, service, lounges and food. Qantas anointed high-profile chef Neil Perry to manage its business class food service, while Virgin Australia is guided by Luke Mangan.
Kicking old stereotypes
Virgin Australia corporate communications executive Danielle Keighery says in-flight food is kicking old stereotypes to become something that business class passengers in particular can look forward to.
"You have people wanting to have good, fresh food that allows them to sleep well, feel good and get off without feeling sluggish and tired," she says.
"Having fresh produce that is well thought through, that's not too heavy, is that really nice complement to the flight. All those extra pieces are becoming more and more important. The more of that we can do, the better."
It's the vexed question of how to reproduce restaurant-quality fare at 30,000 feet that fascinates Mangan, who has just set the menu for the airline's Brisbane to Los Angeles route, which this month has been newly upgraded to daily departures.
Mangan previewed his new in-flight menu to media at the luxury One&Only resort on Queesland's Hayman Island.
He presented a light but taste-packed three courses that drew heavily on local produce, including king prawns served with a mango, papaya and tamarind dressing; coral trout fillet served with spanner crab and a coconut broth; and a "floating islands" dessert served with figs, berries and crème anglaise.
A restaurant in the sky
Mangan concedes not all of the flavours enjoyed during the beachfront lunch sitting overlooking the Whitsunday islands will be as prevalent in the air.
"You do lose a bit of your tastebuds in the air, about 20 to 30 per cent," he says. "So, for example, the tamarind dressing with the prawns has that kick to it, then the coconut broth on the fish, that's the sort of point of difference with the fresh herbs on top.
"The food I'm trying to do up there is a restaurant in the sky, and in doing that we're trying to create light, clean, healthy food."
The travails of in-flight food are well known – like anyone who has flown in the past 20 years, Mangan, too, has been served his share of toughened meat, tasteless vegetables and stodgy pasta dishes that sit in the stomach like a brick for hours afterwards.
"I've learned a lot about the fish and meat cuts that you shouldn't be serving in the front of the plane," he says.
"For example, salmon, kingfish, barramundi are all high in oil content, which is good. They're going to hold well if the seatbelt sign goes on and they're stuck in the oven or the warmer.
"Short ribs, beef ribs, things off the bone, a braising cut of beef that has a little bit of fat through it, you can braise that because it's going to hold up well.
"You would never put a loin of venison on because it's got no fat and if you overcook it, it's going to be like a leather shoe. Fragrant spices I use a lot, and fresh herbs, to boost the taste sensation."
Simple works best
Keeping things simple helps retain as much taste as possible, Mangan says. "Two or three components to it, and that's it. That's where the simplicity comes out.
"Some airline food, they put on sauces and all sorts of things and it gets too heavy, it becomes too much, too rich. When people are in the air they want it simple."
Every two months, Mangan invites Virgin Australia flight crew to his Sydney warehouse to train them to assemble and garnish business class meals, which are usually cooked pre-flight.
"On all the flights, we leave about 20 per cent of it for the crew to finish, a garnish, fresh herbs, or a salsa to go over a piece of fish or a dressing. We leave that to the crew. That adds that freshness," he says.
"Our point of difference is that the crew are freshening it and doing it to order."
Keighery says this hands-on approach means Virgin staff have a closer connection to the food. "Our people get to practice serving the food, they get to try the food so they know themselves what it tastes like. That sort of thing is the finishing touch that brings what might be an OK product to a really exceptional product," she says.
Listening to the staff
A key plank in Mangan's service ethic – whether in one of his restaurants or the dozens of "restaurants in the sky" that whiz overhead each day – is to listen to the feedback from staff.
"It's like in my restaurants, we listen to the floor staff. They're with the customer all the time. You listen to the trends, you listen to the consistent messages," he says.
"For example, cous-cous. We did a dish with braised lamb and cous-cous and (passengers) would scoop it up and the cous-cous would fall all over their lap. We don't use cous-cous anymore."
A large percentage of the food Mangan approves for Virgin's in-flight business catering is also served in his restaurants.
"There's a lot of commonality. There's some dishes that won't fly, but generally it's all about taste and balance and seasoning and making sure it's all right. Probably 80 per cent of the dishes that are in our restaurants are in the air, because they can be."