I’ve watched two of the Heston Blumenthal ‘incredible challenge‘ programmes now, the first on airplane food, and the second on submarine catering. There was the normal slightly wacky thoughts at the start – sufficiently far out that I have to believe it was a matter of Hestons brand identity/programme making. But, what stood out jaw-droppingly was what felt like fundamental and huge clangers dropped by the established food providers.
Starting with the airline food – BA in this case, with their supplier GateGourmet. Here, the head chef tried new ideas, and a tasting panel tried them out. So far, so much as expected. The surprise came from the moment that the head chef declared that he didn’t really believe that food tasted any different on a plane, and also seemed to have little idea how the meals he designed would be experienced on a plane. The tasting panel weren’t much better in that they tried the food when newly prepared, on the ground. To be fair, they may have also tried when airborne, and just not noted it in the programme – but even then they could at least have duplicated the length of time the meals were cooked, and the basic type of oven. Given the sheer volumes of food involved, you would have thought that the test chefs and taste panel would have a clue.
The submarine one was even more intruiging. The sub is away for 90 days at a time, and the trip duration seems to be governed mostly by the amount of food they can store. They take quite a bit of fresh food, but run out after the first month at best. The surprise was the amount of manual prep that went on on the sub, and the extent to which catering seemed to be treated as completely isolated from other activities. As an example, much was made of the budget being EXACTLY the same as for prisoners (£2.36/day or similar). I get why it would be constrained, but why would one imagine that the economics of submarines returning to port, mostly to restock food, are not impacted by the catering model, to the extent that the ‘right’ trade-off comes out at exactly the same as a prison. Last time I looked, prisons do not have to return to port, they are notably static.
So, Heston’s contribution (after the initial theatrical bit for television was done) was sous vide preparation, which made the food good, compact, and freezable. And, prep would take even less effort for the chefs, presumably meaning one could do the work with fewer folks. I’m sure that there are some nuances – for example how you reprovision when overseas … but one would have thought that you could do that from some large surface vessel – an aircraft carrier or similar.
To be clear, it wasn’t that there was a new idea that could make a difference that really surprised me. It was that there seemed to have been no thought by the Navy into how catering interacted with the economics of running the sub, even though they themselves flagged catering as the primary reason for coming into port. Like the BA case, the lack of inquisitiveness in those people that were in roles where it should have been a given was depressing.