Virgin flight attendants get classier thanks to celebrity chef

A group of Virgin Australia flight attendants has gathered behind roller doors in a warehouse at Sydney's Waterloo.

They're not here for secret flight attendants' business, but a training course with celebrity chef Luke Mangan, who is taking them through the intricacies of some of the business-class meals he has introduced to the airline.

This course is voluntary, but Mangan turns up the heat on the crew by asking them to mix a tamarind dressing to go over a Peking duck, green papaya and mango salad. This is a meal served on east-west flights across Australia.

The flight attendants are also asked to plate up the food and are judged on its presentation as well as the taste of the dressing they have mixed.

Mangan walks the line and samples each in turn - he raises his eyebrows and turns his head, just like those earnest judges on My Kitchen Rules - before declaring a winner.

The crew is also tested on the presentation of ocean trout with anchovy butter, another of the meals offered to premium passengers.

They are asked to sample several wines and describe them as they would to passengers. "Dry, medium-bodied chardonnay," one says. "Fruity, light bodied with hints of passionfruit," says another.

The courses with Mangan are being rolled out across Australia, but this one is taking place at his new wine bar Mojo, in Dank Street, which is due to open May 14.

It's in a warehouse that also includes a test kitchen where Mangan tries out new recipes for the airline.

Narelle Kellahan, the general manager of Luke Mangan's food enterprises, says: "We're having an aircraft oven installed, so that we can make sure the testing is as accurate as possible, even chocking the oven so that it's on the same slope as an aircraft on take-off. This will give a very accurate view of what happens to the food through its journey to the guest's table."

She says that customers at the wine bar will sometimes be invited to try the in-flight dishes and give their feedback.

"We want our customers to be part of the process," Mangan says.

He believes people are generally more informed about food these days because of the proliferation of kitchen TV shows.

"They [the TV shows] raise food awareness and reveal what goes on in the kitchens and how much pressure there is. I like that, I think it is good. People appreciate good food now."

Mangan said in-flight dishes have to compensate for a loss of taste sensation at altitude.

"In our restaurants we have a tuna dish that we steam with tomato salsa and black olives, but for flight we need to add more sharpness, acidity and kick to it because we lose that [taste] sensation up in the air."

As the consulting chef for Virgin Australia, Mangan develops the airline's menus for first, business and economy class as well as the airline's airport lounges.

He came on board several years ago after he cooked for Richard Branson on Branson's Caribbean retreat, Necker Island.

His presence at the airline has coincided with the introduction of business class in January 2012, an upgrade of menus and improvements to airport lounges, including Sydney, where there is a kerbside entry where you can clear security and check-in away from the masses in the public area of the airport.

Meanwhile, Qantas is not being left behind in the domestic airline food race and has announced that late in May it will introduce an international standard a la carte menu on all flights from the east coast of Australia to Perth.

Designed by Qantas consulting chef Neil Perry, the dishes will be in addition to the three-course menu already available. The new meals include a range of small and main plates as well as "small bites" to start.

"Qantas invented business-class travel and now we're raising the bar again," said Qantas domestic chief executive officer Lyell Strambi in a shot that could be construed as going across Mangan's bow.

Robert Upe travelled to Luke Mangan's test kitchen courtesy of Virgin Australia.

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