I am frequently asked what does it matter where I get my catering for a flight; why can’t the flight crew prepare the food in their hotel room or shop at a street market to find interesting and seductive items to serve on the aircraft? What could possibly go wrong by ordering food from a hotel or restaurant?
Simply put . . . you need to access the risk with each of these actions and evaluate the safety of your flight crew and passengers after consuming the food you have secured. Let’s look at only one of these factors; a cook-chill food source and a cook-serve food source.
What’s the difference between a cook-serve kitchen and a cook-chill kitchen and why should I care?
There is a huge difference between the two; one should be required for aviation and the other not. A cook-serve kitchen is a restaurant or food market where the food is prepared and handed to you hot with the intention of being eaten immediately . . . or at least in a very short period of time. The food source makes certain the food is fully cooked to the optimum temperature, sauces and vegetables fully cooked to perfection ready to be enjoyed at that exact moment. It is perfect, the flavors blend perfectly, the protein is tender and moist, the sauce is silky and wonderful drizzling across the top and side of the protein, and the vegetables are a bright color and crisp. The chef plates the food for you the way he envisions it to be presented and eaten. Oh, it smells fantastic and your mouth waters at the mere thought of the first bite. It is perfect!
Now when you finish this delightful dining experience and the remaining food is packed for you to take home, it may be placed in a box and artfully arranged – but, it is still warm. It is full of festering bacteria crawling all over the food in the package as it travels with you for whatever time it takes for you to pop it into the refrigerator to save for a later meal. The bacteria in, on and around that food is doubling every 20 minutes when the food temperature is between 41°F and 141°F. So imagine in your mind if that food has a total life span, under those perfect conditions, of four hours, how safe is it now? That’s right 4 hours! That is not four hours since you received it, that is four hours since the handling of that food began. How long do you think the food source had it out of the safe temperature zone (above 41°F or below 141°F)? Think about it . . . the time it was being portioned, cut, cleaned, seasoned and handled during the cooking process; then the time it was hot, ready and waiting to be brought to you by the staff; the time you lingered over it while savoring every bite; the time it went to the kitchen to be packed for you to take it home and then the time it took you to get it into refrigeration under 41°F? It is like a ticking bomb! A minute here and a minute there. Now, what about the time you let it rest on the counter before reheating it? And did you place it into a hot oven to heat, or a microwave and how long did that take? Did you reheat that food to 141°F (actually the rules state 165°F)to kill off some of that nasty bacteria that was swarming all over that lovely meal.
The food source does not have to worry about what happens after the food leaves their kitchen or facility; what happens to you and the way you handle the food is not their “problem”. You enjoyed that meal when it was freshly prepared and assumed it was safe to eat. I have noticed that some places now put a sticker on the package that says discard after 3 days or they provide instructions for reheating your leftovers. But, do you still assume that this leftover food is safe to eat because it looks fine, smells fine, and tastes fine? More than likely it is fine, because you were the one in control of that food and the time probably didn’t exceed that four hour golden rule.
BUT, here is the glitch in the works. What if you didn’t have control of that food, you had no idea of the time it was held at in unsafe temperatures and the bacteria that naturally occurs in food kept growing and growing? Is it safe now? Do you want to give it a try? Maybe you’ll just get a little case of nausea or diarrhea? But it looked fine and smelled fine. So here is my case for why you need to work with a food source in ordering your catering that is familiar with what is referred to as a cook–chill kitchen.
So what is the difference?
A cook-chill kitchen prepares the food knowing that the food is to be eaten at a later time and date; that the food will be reheated, (if to be served hot), by someone other than a possibly trained food handler. The establishment plans for the food to be in an unsafe environment, plans for the reheating and potential overcooking of the food you requested by immediately stopping the cooking process in a blast chiller or by other acceptable means. A cook- chill establishment records the safe time you have left on the food. Those beautiful silky sauces are packed separately in locking seal tight containers so they won’t leak and cross contaminate other food items while being stowed in aircraft cubbies for departure and landing; the proteins are rapidly chilled so the cooking process is stopped and the growth of bacteria is slowed at a faster rate. Another benefit of rapidly chilling the proteins is that the flesh will not dry out. If food is allowed to cool at room temperature, it continues to cook ( and that clock is ticking) as it sits on the cooling rack and continues to grow more and more of that wicked stuff giving you stomach cramps and nausea.
A cook-chill kitchen knows that the foods must be separated into component pieces, since each will require a different heating time . . . and possibly a different temperature and by different means (microwave or oven). A case for a cook-chill kitchen is that they plan for the food to be eaten later and make it travel as safe as possible. But what happens in aviation catering that makes this cook-chill step more important is that the catering is handled by so many different people, all potentially exposing it to more and more kinds of bacteria. It might be a flight department service tech or office staff or an FBO customer service representative, or a line service loading it to the aircraft. How was it handled? Was it dropped, tilted, did it leak? Was it held under refrigeration while “it” waited on you to arrive? There are so many variables and unknown factors in the aviation flow of food, and your due diligence is critically important. Think about it; do you want to take that risk?