Pork cubes, pomelo and pomegranate – all pops of pink atop a bed of lettuce leaves, served with a prawn cracker. A crowd of tasters gathers around while the chefs who created the dish stand back nervously. A hush falls as a woman in a brown jacket tries a spoonful. She pauses, then pulls up a reference photo of the dish, comparing it to the carefully plated version in front of her.
This is a tasting session for Cathay Pacific’s new partnership with Duddell’s, which will see the Michelin-starred institution’s Cantonese fine dining take flight on the plates of outbound First class and Business passengers in February and run for 12 months. The menu is built on flavours and ingredients that represent the city’s heritage, diversity and ingenuity: from main courses like wok-fried lobster seasoned with ginger, or premium Iberico pork belly simmered in a sweet, sticky soy sauce glaze; to chrysanthemum and longan jelly for dessert.
Wok-fried lobster in white pepper sauce with spring onions and ginger, a Chinese banquet classic which also nods to the Singaporean specialty white pepper crab
Strawberry yoghurt pudding, inspired by Beijing-style yoghurt
High-altitude dining is a fine art, one which Cathay Pacific has embraced as a cornerstone of a new culinary initiative that raises the bar for inflight dining – from sourcing more sustainable seafood to curating thoughtful wellness menus and serving freshly brewed coffee, and putting detail at the heart of every dish.
The brown-jacketed reviewer at the tasting is Cherry Wan, representing Duddell’s as the Executive Director of its parent company, JIA Group. Does the dish meet her exacting standards? She isn’t sold on the pomegranate. “I think it’s a little bit too sour for me. Then it tastes like you’re eating seeds,” she says. Her words launch a discussion among the teams, with Vassilios Georgakopoulos, Cathay Pacific’s Head of Customer Experience, on hand to assess the practicalities at play.
A conversation unfolds over what else would work: pink grapefruit is earmarked to incorporate into the next tasting.
Red braised Iberico pork belly with radish, salted fish and vegetable rice. Sweet, sticky and melt-in-your-mouth all at once, cut through by tender radish and deep-fried julienned ginger
Shredded chicken and jellyfish salad with sesame dressing. Hand-shredded chicken is tossed with jellyfish in a sesame dressing, with a hint of chili and a sprinkling of pine nuts
Next, the type of lettuce comes under the lens. So does the texture of the cracker. Then the way the pomelo is sliced (elegant strips are more appealing than chunks). And with the pork mixture designed to be parcelled into the leaves, is the dish intuitive enough?
The chefs return to the kitchen to take another pass, and the tasting team moves onto the next dish: a plate of hand-shredded chicken and sesame jellyfish.
Over the next few hours, every element of the menu receives the same scrutiny: each must be perfect and remain so through challenges like turbulence, and be practical when taking into account limited cooking facilities and manpower. And above all: will it taste amazing, 30,000 feet in the air?
Vivian Lo, Cathay Pacific’s General Manager Customer Experience and Design, describes how the Duddell’s partnership reflects a shared ethos of impeccability. “Duddell’s sources ingredients that make a dish stand out and prepares it with time-honoured techniques that enhance the flavours. The care and passion that went into ensuring each dish leaves a lasting impression is aligned with what Cathay Pacific strives to deliver every day.”
Flavour is one of the most difficult elements to get right when designing dishes for inflight dining. At altitude, reduced humidity and lower air pressure impair flyers’ sense of smell and the sensitivity of tastebuds, dulling their abilities to discern flavour. To counteract this, everything on the counter is designed to be just a touch saltier, spicier and sweeter than the dishes that would be served in the restaurant.
“The biggest challenge was replicating a dish in a huge volume with a taste and quality consistent with what we envisaged,” says Yenn Wong, JIA Group founder and CEO, reflecting on the food tasting process. “We adjusted the recipes to enhance the flavours of the meals, while keeping health in mind.”
The Cathay Pacific and Duddell’s partnership brings refined Hong Kong flavours to the skies
The dishes at the food tasting are laid out in both their “uplift presentation” – the boxed version of the meal which is loaded onto planes – and their final plating, which is how the dishes will be arranged and served in flight by cabin crew.
More than 40 meals go out per flight across the First class and Business cabins, and passengers are able to pre-book their choice. Each dish must be presented identically with no error in presentation; a margin which is magnified when something seemingly as simple as placing a cracker on a plate must be performed dozens of times by someone who could be drawn away at any time to attend to a passenger’s needs.
Cooking methods on a plane are limited, and dishes are designed to be heated in about 20 minutes: the bulk of preparation is carried out on the ground in Cathay Pacific’s kitchens near Hong Kong International Airport. Cost and sourcing are important considerations, as is ensuring ingredients have a wide appeal. Elements like the jellyfish are debated (justified by the fact that local diners are familiar with it and the Duddell’s menu only runs on outbound flights from Hong Kong), while spice levels are carefully monitored. There are rave reactions to dishes like the grouper soup noodles sprinkled with Sichuan pepper – a particularly big hit among the Cathay and JIA teams.
Chrysanthemum and longan jelly. A light, refreshing dessert with a delicate balance of sweetness and aroma, and roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Dishes that make the grade include a sweet and delicate steamed halibut with chewy cordyceps flowers, aged mandarin peel and preserved black olives, inspired by southern Chinese Shunde cuisine, and ginger milk pudding, a twist on a beloved classic Cantonese dessert. All Cathay Pacific menus are meticulously revised and presented for internal tastings a minimum of three times before they are cleared for launch, but the Duddell’s dishes served on Cathay Pacific flights will set a new standard for how fine dining can be translated in the air: elevating passengers’ experiences while showing off the best of Hong Kong cuisine – and it’s a hint of much more to come.
Lo adds, “We will be bringing more authentic Hong Kong flavours to our travellers, from those looking for a taste of home to those with adventures in their hearts.”
The tasting session brings out a sense of shared camaraderie. It’s clear from the passion in the room that nothing but the best will suffice. And as the partnership’s February launch draws nearer, it’s now down to the finishing touches. Will the pomegranate seeds make the cut? There’s only one way to find out: in a First class or Business seat, high above Hong Kong.
The Duddell’s x Cathay Pacific menu is available in First class and Business on long-haul flights departing from Hong Kong to all destinations (except Dubai and Tel Aviv) throughout the year.