Airline meals once had a pretty bad rap, but in-flight food has improved quite a bit since Seinfeld was wondering what its deal was. And really, isn’t it kind of amazing that you can get a hot meal at all when you are barreling through the sky at 600 miles per hour in a small metal tube?

For everyone that has ever wondered how that perfectly portioned food turns up on your tray, we’ve gone behind that scenes at the in-flight meal production center for Japan Airlines (JAL) to get the scoop.

JAL Royal Catering (JRC) is located not far from Narita International Airport and provides meals for 10 of JAL’s international routes originating there, including Los Angeles, London and Paris flights. Their responsibilities include collecting and cleaning of tableware, preparation of food, arrangement of meals and delivery to the airport. They recently allowed RocketNews24 to visit their facility. Here are some of our impressions from the trip.

  • The human touch

The most surprising thing for us was that it didn’t fit with our image of a factory at all. Where were the huge machines churning out mass quantities of identical plastic-wrapped thingamajigs? At JRC, each meal is made by human hands, with very little reliance on conveyor belt-type assembly lines.

Granted, the large amounts of tableware are washed in a huge machine, but then each item is individually checked to make sure it’s clean. If there is any remaining dirt or cloudiness, it is washed and polished by hand. Pretty impressive!

  • More kitchen than factory

The food preparation area looks more like something you would find in a cooking school. Staff stand around a large working table. The preparations, arrangement and loading onto airplane carts is all done by hand there too, not just for first and business class meals but for economy class grub as well. In one day, the staff prepare an impressive 4,000 meals, with differing menus for each route and class.

Additionally, JRC operates under a policy that food must be served within 24 hours of being made. Under a normal schedule, this is a punishing pace, but when flight delays and cancellations occur, those meals sometimes need to be completely remade.

Another difference from regular food service is that in-flight meals have to be cooked, then cooled for storage and reheated in the air, so staff have to closely monitor cooling times and temperatures to ensure freshness and flavor.

  • The JAL edge?

The handmade quality of the food was clear to us now, but we also wondered if there were any other points that make JRC stand out from the competition. We asked the staff how their work would compare to, say, rival All Nippon Airways. They say JAL has superior menu development.

For example, JAL collaborates with famous chefs or popular chain restaurants to produce special menu items. Other airlines offer similar promotions, but according to JRC, that often involves just accepting a recipe from their partner, rather than working together with them to develop something new.

At JAL, the partner submits a recipe, then JRC does a trial preparation, then the finished product is sent back to the partner so they can taste it, make comments, and offer improvements. JAL’s executive chef is also involved in the development.

Compared with a restaurant on the ground, in-flight meals have certain special restrictions on ingredients and preparation. In order to meet those restrictions, a recipe sometimes has to be altered time and time again and sent back to the executive chef and the partner to taste and approve. It can take three or four months just to develop one menu item!

  • Thanks, JRC!

We were really impressed by the attention to detail and amount of effort expended to produce an in-flight meal, down to the way the staff carefully wrapped the silverware neatly in the napkin. We marveled at how many people, from development to delivery, were doing their utmost to make sure passengers have a nice meal. Kind of makes you see that little tray of food in a while new light, doesn’t it?

Check out the photos we took during our visit below!


▼ Because they are handling food, there are strict rules to follow in order to enter.



▼ This is where tableware returning from the planes is washed.



▼ After being washed, they are checked by hand for dirt or cloudiness.


▼ Only once they pass muster are they loaded up to go back on the plane.


▼ Here cutlery is being wrapped up for business class meals.



▼ The refrigerator


▼ Meat and produce are carefully arranged by freshness.



▼ On to the prep rooms! Here, appetizers and other unheated dishes are prepared in the “cold kitchen”.




▼ Main dishes and other heated foods are prepared in the “hot kitchen”.


▼ The hot kitchen refrigerator. In order to prevent the spread of bacteria, the temperature of cooked food has to be lowered below 4 degrees C within four hours of cooking.


▼ Both the food and prep stations are checked for bacteria in-house


▼ The “dishing group” arranges the food



▼ All of the food has to pass through a metal detector


▼ Once it passes inspection, it can be packaged


▼ The “meal set group” arranges the packaged food onto trays and loads them on the carts



▼ Here is a collaboration with well-known Tokyo restaurant Ore no Italian French, served in economy class


▼ The finished meals have to be returned to refrigeration within two hours


▼ Meals, kept below 10 degrees, are ready to ship out with drinks


▼ Bye-bye!


Photos: RocketNews24

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