Do you book train and plane travel based on gourmet meals?

by Karen Fawcett on November 7, 2012

Some people live to travel while others travel by their stomachs. If you fall into this category, perhaps the Eurostar’s announcement will cause you to book the high-speed UK, French and Belgium rail.

Chef Raymond Blanc, of television fame, has devised new menus to (hopefully) persuade passengers that train food can be gourmet. He’s not the first chef to try to alter public opinion about travel fare and probably won’t be the last. Blanc’s new menus include dishes inspired by the rail network’s French, British and Belgian destinations.

Are trains and planes with gourmet food the answer for you? Or would you prefer to bring your own? Gourmands differ in their druthers.

If you’re traveling in business premier class, expect to be served poached pollock in an English white wine sauce and an apple, celeriac and Belgian pas de bleu cheese salad, among other selections. Passengers departing from Paris will find mainly French food on their trays, such as salmon paté with horseradish and cauliflower. Those leaving London will be served mainly British fare, including English Camembert cheese.

Blanc hopes to improve the caliber of train food by “removing delicate foods to concentrate on stronger foods with a lot of personality, like cheese, sardines and apples,” said the Frenchman, who has lived in Britain since the 1970s. He adds, “I want simple food. You have less chance of messing it up,” acknowledging the considerable challenges in serving high-quality food on a mass scale.

The meals will be prepared in the Eurostar’s three kitchens, in Burgundy, Sussex and in Brussels. Blanc aims to have his meals compete with those served in the first and business classes on any airline.

And yes, airlines have solicited the aid of numerous chefs, including Heston Blumenthal for British Airways; Gordon Ramsay, Joel Robuchon, Alice Waters, Guy Martin and the list goes on.

Will a meal cause someone to book one flight or take a train rather than another? Probably not, but you can dream. Some claim this is just celebrity hype, marketing and a way of obtaining press.

“Think about it,” comments food writer Margaret Kemp. “How can you control the quality of food when you’re dependent on rotating ‘chefs,’ too-tight spaces, pre-cooked and pre-prepped food, ovens that are difficult to regulate, not to mention the elements?”

She has a point, when you consider how hard it is to create gourmet on the ground, where kitchens have been designed to minimize surprises. Kemp has traveled all over the world hoping to taste a great meal prepared by one of her favorite chefs, and says she’s never tasted food approaching the standards of their restaurants. “Something strange happens at high altitudes and speeds. Even wines taste strange.”

Sure, people would rather have good food than mediocre food and who wants bad? Most people say they eat to combat hunger and boredom, but unless you’re traveling first class, how often do you hear people raving about plane or train food? Would you book a flight based on a menu? Most people opt for flights according to convenience, price or loyalty programs and that’s it.

Plus, have you noticed an increasing number of passengers bring their own food? Most travelers say they just want to get off a plane or a train without getting sick. Many are suspicious after reports of tainted food.

On a recent train trip between Paris and London, many people were toting picnics — some of which were definitely gourmet — saying they were better quality and better buys than train food. Many people are opting to bring their own food on flights where they’d have to buy their meals on board. One person admitted the only time she eats airline food is if it’s free and even now, she’s considering changing that after reports of unwanted debris and tainted food.

Which makes you think — are train companies and the airlines throwing good money after bad, chasing the gourmet dream? Margaret Kemp says no. “These chefs improve the quality because they care. Any efforts are better than none.”

Do you agree that it’s worth it or is this much to do about nothing?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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  • Jeff

    The only negative of the British Airways business class (Club class) is that the meals are precooked. The appetizers are fine as they are served cold, but the main courses turn out overcooked, except for the cold chicken salad – of which they run out quickly as repeat customers have learned to request it.

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