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The choreography on the floor that takes meals to heaven

The choreography on the floor that takes meals to heaven

Millions of people boarded planes between Christmas and New Year – braving inclement weather, armrest hogs and an epic Southwest Airlines collapse.

Frustration is often a part of flying on vacation, but when an airline gets it right, the food they serve can soften a long day of travel. If not, a bad meal only adds to the misery.

What does it take for this tray to get to you?

Gate Gourmet, a global airline catering company that provides meals to flights from more than 200 airports, gave the New York Times a behind-the-scenes look at its operations at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the company’s huge building in New Jersey, hundreds of employees work in a complex choreography every day to provide meals for around 400 flights.

In the kitchen, late last month, a team of chefs were busy peeling potatoes, slicing zucchini and cooking a giant pot of mushrooms. They play a crucial role, but the cooks can’t do anything without the carts, trays and other items cleaned in the dish room and the ingredients stored in the pantry.

“Those are the two main focal points of a kitchen,” said Jim Stathakes, general manager of the Newark building, which spans 290,000 square feet, or about five football fields. “When they work smoothly, the kitchen works smoothly.”

When a Gate Gourmet-served flight arrives in Newark, the company collects the kitchen carts that flight attendants wheel down the aisles, along with the trash and dirty dishes and the trays that the carts contain.

The cavernous crockery room is where rubbish is disposed of, dishes washed and unused, clean items such as soda cans, tea bags and milk jugs collected. The empty galley carts are loaded into a closed facility, similar to a small car wash, where they are cleaned and rinsed in extremely hot water.

In the nearby storage room, forklifts are loading and unloading some of the 2,000 pallets loaded with ingredients for the kitchen. A few hundred pallets of watermelons, strawberries and other fresh items are stored in a food cooler, while around 500 pallets of meat and other vegetables are stored in a freezer.

Stacked several stories high in the main storage room, most pallets contain a wide variety of items, from canned oranges to gherkins to hot sauce bottles.

To keep food fresh while it’s being stored, transported, prepared and ultimately delivered, Gate Gourmet uses about 7,000 pounds of ice and about 10,000 pounds of dry ice every day.

On a day in late November, Mark DeCruz, the Newark Building’s executive chef, oversaw work in the hot kitchen, which houses industrial equipment capable of large-scale steaming, baking, drying and smoking of foods. Thousands of portions of mashed potatoes, polenta or mushrooms can be prepared with huge cauldrons. Depending on the season, employees’ daily production for Newark flights can range from about 15,000 to more than 25,000 meals.

The food is prepared slightly differently than would be the case for meals on the ground. Sensitivity to sweet and savory foods can decrease with altitude, so the Gate Gourmet team could increase the salt and sugar content in a recipe by about 10 percent, Mr. DeCruz said. Since umami flavors are sometimes amplified in the air, many dishes contain mushrooms.

Chefs at Gate Gourmet’s airport locations have leeway to adapt recipes, but Molly Brandt, a senior innovation director at the company, can create them from scratch. Working alone in a test kitchen in Miami, Ms. Brandt is tasked with pushing the boundaries.

In a way, she tries to design recipes with flying in mind, incorporating umami flavors or using succulent vegetables and fruits that might be appealing in a dry airplane cabin, like cucumbers, tomatoes and grapes. But in general Ms. Brandt tries not to restrict herself.

A few weeks ago she was working on recipes for a beef dish for a flight between Europe and the United States, a vegan dish for a flight between the Middle East and India and another vegan dish for a flight from the West Coast.

For the beef dish, Ms. Brandt wanted to do something that would be familiar to Americans and Europeans alike, so she created a pot roast with Catalan flavors, with olives, fennel and orange. For the flight between the Middle East and India, she created a dish inspired by both regions: a roasted cauliflower steak with a turmeric sauce with pomegranate, dill, chickpeas and garam masala. For the final dish, she created a mushroom mapo tofu lasagna — an adventurous take on comfort food.

Ms. Brandt regularly consults with Gate Gourmet’s customers and meticulously measures each individual ingredient so that it can be scaled accurately. However, creating meals that appeal to all passengers can be difficult, she said.

“Perhaps they just want a comforting meal; Maybe they need to rest right now and just need something super nutritious,” she said. “We have a lot of things to consider.”

Once hot food is chilled to prevent spoilage and cold food is prepared, staff in the Newark building can begin preparing meals for flights to the UK, Brazil, Germany, India, Israel and other destinations near and far.

International lunches and dinners are the most difficult to put together, as airlines and passengers expect better quality and service on these longer, usually more expensive, flights. During the preparation of the food, up to 20 trucks are loaded with items that can be stored and galley trolleys. The temperature-sensitive foods are loaded last, just before the trucks are ready to depart.

To avoid wastage due to delays or cancellations, trucks typically leave the building about two hours before a flight and Gate Gourmet is in constant contact with its airline customers, including those in Newark United Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Lufthansa, SAS , Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. (Gate Gourmet operates kitchens for United at several of its hub airports, including Newark.)

A twin aisle aircraft typically requires two trucks, while a single aisle aircraft only requires one. The Newark plant has 132 trucks, most of which are used daily, said Mr. Stathakes, the general manager. Spring and summer are the busiest routes at the facility, and the busiest time of day is late afternoon, just before many flights, particularly international ones, depart.

At night, trucks and teams set out again to rid incoming planes of their used carts and dishes and start the process over.

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