Story and photographs by Chris Dwyer
Nov 8, 2022
WAY BACK IN 1919, a flight from London to Paris aboard an airline called Handley Page made history. How? It marked the first recorded example of an in-flight meal.
Sensibly, given that aviation was in its infancy, it consisted of sandwiches and fruit. Flambeeing on board flights, especially back then, would not be advised.
Fast forward 103 years and I’m standing in a catering facility in Doha, Qatar which covers the size of 10 football pitches. The vast operation is home to QACC—or Qatar Aircraft Catering Company—who supply everything you eat or drink on board Qatar Airways, from peanuts to pastries and croissants to Krug.
That translates to the daily production of more than 175,000 full meals, from coach to first class, ultimately served across 320 aircraft flying to more than 160 destinations.
If that wasn’t astonishing enough, with the imminent arrival of the World Cup and a huge influx of passengers to Doha, they expect that total to creep up towards as high as 220,000—all prepped under one roof, every day. QACC employs around 4,500 workers, with 1,300 on duty during my visit, but things ramp up at night when it gets busiest.
Once through the strict security, hygiene and safety protocols to get into the facility, what strikes you first is the vast amounts of fresh food.
There are enormous mounds of pumpkins and peppers and huge tubs filled with onions and carrots. They’re needed as QACC get through eight tons of onions every single day. Imagine the tears chopping those.
Impressively, almost every part of all the meals Qatar serves in-flight is made in-house, including soups, sauces and stocks, with no preservatives or powders in sight. That’s partly because from preparation to serving on board, they’ve set for themselves an absolute limit of 48 hours for a cold dish and 72 hours for a hot dish—so nothing needs preserving.
Clearly the single most important factor is safety as there’s complete traceability of every ingredient, down to the supplier and people who packed it. Not only that, but arguably the most important piece of kit in the place is a white security camera that acts as a temperature checker, beaming down on endless trays zooming along a conveyor belt, to ensure that every single morsel of food underneath it registers at least 65 degrees. If it doesn’t, the system stops.
I’m shown four huge flour silos, each containing five tons of flour, which ends up in 110-kilogram mixing bowls. It ultimately gets transformed into 36 different kinds of bread, while the fragrant bakery section produces 400 pieces per minute, be they buns or pita bread, cookies or cakes.
Aside from the bakery, the most aromatic section is reserved for Indian cuisine. Biriyani fans will be glad to know that it’s one of the meals Qatar keeps on the in-flight menu year-round. Along a conveyor belt, workers in blue gloves take handfuls of yellow and white pilau rice from a huge metal tray and spread them carefully atop individual plastic trays of meat. That’s one of your economy class entree choices.
The final word, though, has to go to the omelet station. If you assumed that they’re microwaved or produced by a machine, think again. A team of workers stand around a slowly rotating circular series of halogen hobs, topped with 18 omelet pans. The eggs are poured in, then they’re teased and cooked by hand, as you would at home.
Just count yourself lucky that you don’t have to make 4,000 of them a day.