Paula Kraft’s name isn’t among the super star chefs on television’s Food Network, but perhaps it should be. This culinary pioneer is among the aviation world’s top champions for food quality, presentation, and mouth-watering taste, and she’s been doing it for more than 38 years. For the past 30 years, Kraft has built a successful business as an Atlanta-based caterer for general aviation – boasting about, but not revealing, a high-profile, celebrity, and “Forbes 100” clientele. The secret to her success: good eats.
Yes, it’s the gastronomically pleasing creations coming forth from her kitchen that keep her aviation customers satisfied (and coming back for more), but it’s Kraft’s zealous pursuit of food safety, sanitation, and security that put her name on the lips of many in the industry. You could say she’s the top chef in the skies and she has an iron-chef will to make sure everyone on board the aircraft arrives satisfied, safe, and secure in the knowledge that the food they consume is prepared meeting the highest standards for quality and cleanliness.
The world of food is different for commercial aviation and general aviation. In commercial aviation, caterers have the airlines, the FAA (and its equivalent in other countries), and food regulators to contend with. Not so in general aviation: “No one’s assuring that the food is coming from reliable sources,” says Kraft. And why is this important? Speaking about catering in general, and her Atlanta-based catering business, Tastefully Yours, in particular, Kraft says with a commanding air of confidence: “We control the aircraft.”
She’s serious. And she’s quick to explain why: “Think about it, we’re supplying food for the most powerful people in the world.” Kraft sees it as putting your life in the food handler’s hands, and it’s a responsibility she takes seriously. “We eat every day and we don’t get sick, so we assume our food is safe.” But that’s a foolish assumption, she suggests. Some food-borne illnesses have an incubation period of days or weeks so the connection to a salad or a sandwich from last week or last month isn’t made. Security is also incredibly important. Kraft asks, “What if someone has a grudge against you or your company and they know you get your catering from XYZ?”
AVIATION’S “PAULA DEEN”
Standing in her company’s kitchen, Kraft looks like she belongs there just as much as the ovens, ranges, and refrigerators. Her eyes light up and she starts presenting her culinary manifesto with the same gusto you see coming from Gordon Ramsay or Guy Fieri or Tom Colicchio or Wolfgang Puck or any of the food world’s superstars. She has stage presence more like – almost exactly like – Paula Deen. It’s definitely the Southern charm that defines Kraft’s effervescent personality. When she talks, people listen. She speaks with authority and audiences follow.
She can quickly switch gears and seamlessly move from explaining the secret ingredients that define a signature dish to recounting something “truly bad” that can happen. “Are you aware that 60% of Medaire’s calls relate to gastrointestinal illnesses,” she asks. The answer for most is “no.”
Not to worry, Kraft elaborates with slides, demonstrations, and preserved Petri dishes containing the nasty bugs (viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other creepy things) swabbed from jets. “We’ve found, in some instances, that the lavatory was actually cleaner than the galley.”
There’s more: ground crew members who don’t wash their hands after fuelling; sushi that sits in a sweltering hangar for more than an hour; buckets used for “whatever” and then used for ice; ice machines that haven’t been cleaned…ever; home caterers who prepare food with dogs, cats, and even birds hovering around the preparation area (a home kitchen); and perhaps the biggest eww, “I’ve seen ground crews clean the lavatory and then load the catering without washing or sanitizing.”
CONTROLLING THE FOOD CHAIN
Not to worry, if you’re lucky enough or smart enough to be her customer, you can rest assured that in Kraft’s food chain, she knows all. She vets hers employees and her suppliers; she requires specially-cleaned uniforms for food handling staff; and don’t even think of showing up for work sick. She monitors food at the FBOs and assures they know what they’re doing when storing and loading food. She keeps control of the food chain, as she likes to say.
More than giving a sales pitch for her own business, Kraft is aviation’s food-safety evangelist. She’s made it her mission to educate everyone: cooks, chefs, caterers, suppliers, maintenance workers, ground crews pilots, flight attendants, and most importantly, passengers.
“It’s all got to start with the passenger. Food safety has to start with the passengers,” Kraft says.
She’s quick to point out that the one thing connecting general aviation and commercial aviation is the passenger: “Passengers have to be educated about the food they eat – both on the aircraft and in their lives. The food choices we make affect everything in our lives.”
Kraft promotes the need for better information up and down the food chain she turned per passion into a separate company called Aviation Catering Consultants (ACC). As a consultant, Kraft and her kitchen crew teach air crews how to prepare meals, how to present meals, how to deal with the unexpected, how to keep clean and safe, and how to assure the health and safety of the crew and the passengers.
In an effort to try and share her knowledge, she’s active in the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). She chairs the Caterers Working Group and is the caterer representative on the NBAA’s Flight Attendant Committee. With this forum, she helped create a mentoring programme for flight attendants where they join caterers in the kitchens and bridge the gap between food preparation and flight attendant.
She remains active in the industry by being a member of several different organizations including International Catering Association, National Association for Catering Executives, Women in Aviation International, Women in Corporate Aviation, National Association of the Self Employed, and Catersource.
To help passengers and crews make the right food choices, she employs a nutritionist, Heather Hibben. Hibben helps craft menus and works one-on-one with clients to find the best food fit when travelling.
“Travel, particularly at high elevations, causes stress to the body,” Hibben says. “Flying exposes the traveller to high levels of radiation, dehydration, and often emotional stress. People tend to eat less healthy while travelling. Sometimes these poor choices are because we don’t have access to the best choices or are in too much of a hurry to feed ourselves well.”
Hibben offers some quick and easy tips to make the travel experience healthier as well as help the traveller arrive at the destination refreshed and ready for whatever’s next.
“Keep your body on schedule by not eating during the sleep period of your destination. Fast through the ‘night’ and then ‘wake up’ with a high-protein meal in your new time zone. High levels of antioxidants, like those found in fruits and vegetables, will also help combat jet lag and help you maintain focus while counteracting some of the negative effects of day-night switches,” says Hibben.
Other tips: Enjoy drinks without caffeine or alcohol; avoid food additives, especially preservatives; and enjoy meals based around fruits and vegetables with light sauces and few starchy carbohydrates. Focus on whole grains and potatoes with skin when choosing starchy foods.
One simple rule of thumb: if you want to stay awake, eat a high protein meal; if you want to fall asleep, eat a meal loaded with carbs.
Safety Management Systems are everywhere in aviation. “But where is the SMS for caterers,” Kraft rhetorically asks. The answer in general aviation is, “They don’t exist.” Well, not exactly true. Through ACC, Kraft is pioneering SMS guidelines for caterers – building a system that takes into account every aspect of food preparation from the field to the serving tray, or perhaps better put, from soup to nuts.
To educate flight crews, particularly flight attendants, ACC offers seminars, classes, and symposiums. These intense training courses are designed to educate crews on the proper way to satisfy the hungry palate at 35,000 feet.
Kraft talks to other caterers as well, and goes out of her way to build friendly relationships within the tight-knit community. “Everyone knows everyone else. If I know where you’re flying, I can make recommendations. Promoting safety and quality benefits us all. It benefits the industry. I don’t look at it as competition.” Asked if she knows who not to recommend, she offers a grin and a wink as the answer.
ACC tailors programmes for caterers as well as for FBOs and flight departments. In February, ACC invited a select group of connoisseurs to be discerning judges at the Tastefully Yours DeKalb Peachtree Airport facility in Atlanta. These objective voices, representing some of the brightest minds in aviation journalism, were exposed to a sliver, a morsel, a small serving of the ACC SMS training regimen.
Catering to a corporate clientele gives the opportunity to push creative culinary creations to the extreme – of flavour. Whether commercial or corporate, the same taste rules apply, and that’s the first lesson that things taste differently in the air than they do on the ground. To compensate, Kraft and her crew add some jazz by way of extra spice and enhanced flavour combinations (without adding things like excessive salt or other unhealthy ingredients). Another trick: use scented aroma to tantalize the nose. “First you taste with your eyes, then with your nose and finally with your tongue,” she says.
Tasting with eyes begins way back at the beginning of the food prep process. And, because the niche wasn’t being met in the industry, Kraft’s daughter, Amanda, stepped in and created another company in the family empire called Airware.
Amanda Kraft, along with Eric Posey, MD, started Airware in February 2011. The company provides high-quality aviation packaging for onboard food provisioning. It serves the business aviation and commercial airline charter sectors. In the last 12 months, Airware has grown from a small initial client base to a portfolio of more than 50 accounts, including Fortune 50 companies. Specializing in eco-friendly solutions, many of the service-ware and packaging items are manufactured from bamboo, wicker, recycled products, and even leaves.
“Private aviation passengers are discerning. They require food to be served in attractive, quality, contemporary packaging that is eco-friendly, sustainable, and increasingly, in smaller portion sizes. The traditional trays and boxes that have been used for years are tired and overdone. Our clients want something fresh that fits the confines of the aircraft galley. We spotted a need in the market, and haven’t looked back,” says Amanda Kraft.
The company’s complete product line of 750 items includes everything from fine china and crystal to environmentally friendly disposables and Amanda Kraft continues to seek out new items for the growing portfolio – mostly looking outside the usual aviation supply chain for innovation.
Airway’s product line figures prominently in ACC’s SMS training (and Tastefully Yours’ culinary presentations). “Packaging plays a vital role in food safety,” both Kraft’s explain.
The ACC standard training course is one week in duration. The journalist taste testers assembled for the February demonstration were given a one-day crash course. The training is intense – whether a week or a day – and the Kraft’s, both Paula and Amanda, bombard the students with information, tips, tricks, and useful titbits.
Without question, it’s all useful information. And secure in the knowledge that the Kraft’s and their crew know what they’re doing, the tasting journalists sat down to a sampling of food items tailored for air travel: theory becomes reality and the proof was definitely in the pudding. Or in the case of this taster, the proof was in the Etude de Citrus, the Atlanta Chicken, and the decadent Southern Trilogy dessert. Simply put, decadent.