A taste for the high life
Dan Hulme bursts through the door of his London headquarters brandishing a colourful fistful of plastic bags. “I’m really excited about these!” he crows. The vibrant haul contains a new range of bespoke frozen cocktails he has commissioned from expert mixologists Pontoon – destined to taste delicious in the sky. They are the latest addition to the gourmet fare the chef turned entrepreneur provides for private fliers.
His company OnAir Dining caters for the top end of private aviation, and he is extremely selective about his partners. His newest recruit is the cocktail world’s equivalent of Gordon Ramsey, Pontoon’s head of R&D Brent Harcombe – a man who devotes his considerable talents to making magical potions that delight the palate. For example he tracks down liqueurs unearthed from ancient monasteries. Centuries spent underground work a mysterious alchemy in the bottles, so the concoctions inside don’t spoil; rather they alter chemically, and have unique individual essences. Naturally a huge part of their allure is savouring a rare and finite commodity: once consumed they are gone and disappear forever. All this thrills Dan. “That’s the kind of partner we like – people who will work with us to create insanely crazy cocktails and we have clients that love to try them.” The twosome are now working on a quintessentially British drink, it’s made from bitters distilled from the moisture that seeps through Winston Churchill’s bunker. The vapour has oozed through the stone, picking up minerals en route, which Brett will blend with Cuvee Churchill champagne, and “something else that’s traditionally Churchill – whether that’s the whisky he drank, or a nod to the cigars he smoked.” The collaborators aren’t just creating cocktails, they’re creating museum-grade conversation pieces that aren’t untouchable behind protective glass, but instead experienced from a glass.
Once today’s enticing, if less historic, cocktails have been trialled, they will form part of the OnAir Dining standard menu. Dan believes he is the first caterer in the world to deliver cocktails intended solely for private jets. “No one else is talking about mixologists – people are offering wines selected to taste good at altitude, but many of our clients already have their own cellars, if not their own vineyard,” he says.
“We asked Brett to design a cocktail for us that would specifically go with sushi. So he used aged 15-year old sake, which initially has quite a subtle flavour that doesn’t overpower the fish, and then you get the sake taste afterwards that cleanses your palate.”
Ah sushi – an OnAir favourite: with good reason. It is a tasty trouper that can combat the trials of aviation. At altitude pressurized air and lack of humidity play havoc with your tongue and nostrils. Your taste buds are crushed and your nose dries out, so your senses of taste and smell are blunted. If you’ve ever sucked a sloe berry you’ll get the idea – every drop of moisture disappears out the roof of your mouth, leaving you crack lipped and panting for water. Even in private jet cabins, which are engineered to sea level pressure, the air is bone dry, largely because there are so few people on board to contribute to dampening the atmosphere. Typical humidity levels can be as low as 20.8 percent. That’s six percent lower than the Sahara Desert.
That’s just not good news for food. Chef Heston Blumenthal (he of the blowtorches, dry ice and explosions notoriety) once used a pressurized chamber and different strengths of saltwater to prove just how much our taste buds deteriorate in flight. He discovered we barely manage to detect four of the five flavours at half their normal potency. So, like a once great rock star cranking out stale hits ad nauseum, sweet, salty, sour and bitter merely gasp their presence once they reach the big stage in the sky. The only one to survive the seven-mile climb intact is Umami – the fifth flavour found in soy sauce, shitake mushrooms and…umm…breast milk. It is no coincidence then that sushi is such an aerial star. Another big selling dish is Dan’s umami-filled Miso Braised Black Cod, along with Spicy Moroccan Chicken and Thai Curry. The tough spices in them blast through the dryness, so people naturally gravitate towards them. We were itching to test some tastes in the air, so charter operator FlairJet generously stepped in, and offered a last minute ride on a Cessna Citation Bravo, positioning from Luton to Cambridge, England. The damp weather typical of England in December doesn’t do much for our spirits, but they’re soon lifted when we are whisked off to the airport by the kindly folk at First Class cars, who ferry us, and our precious cargo, to the Signature Aviation ramp at Luton.
Fortified by the prospect of an adventurous eating experiment, five of us squeeze in to the snug six-seater to sample Dan’s cold snack menu of said Miso Cod with Sesame Bok Choy, Shitake Broth and Pink Ginger. Plus there’s a selection of British cheeses (including my favourite, Barkham Blue, which I could happily devour to obesity level) and dainty mille-feuilles and madeleines. Alas, a major snag is that on a twenty-minute flight we do not top 10,000ft, and consequently remain at sea level pressure, so after all that effort I cannot comment on how well it travels.
What I can say, however, is that the feast electrifies the senses. My eyes, nose and mouth are stimulated and I can easily see how it would translate into something very special indeed in the environment it’s intended for. The meal outclasses anything I’ve ever eaten on a short leg aboard a private jet, which has often comprised of elderly sandwiches, nondescript fruit and lacklustre cheeses, artfully presented, but frankly bland, tasting simply of “cold.” This is the stuff of horror for perfectionist Dan. Particularly as he would have wished to showcase his products in the environment they are more usually experienced in; during the day when larger cabins are awash with that wonderful light found only at altitude, displaying the beauty of handcrafted veneers, luxurious carpets and sumptuous leather seats. Add music from a state of the art sound system, perfect onboard temperature, and great company, and the ambience is set for what should be an amazing feast. A tantalizing plate is the natural progression of such a pleasurable experience. Colours, textures and shapes are vital. “You eat with your eyes,” purrs Dan. “We work on the flavours, but just as important is the way our food looks. That’s why even with our simple Brasserie dishes we’ll send attractive garnishes to give them a finesse that makes people go ‘oooh’.”
He is so passionate about the ‘ooh’ factor that he has spent years tracking down the right packaging to present his food. Swathed in dry ice and special cellophane that goes in the oven, a delivery from OnAir Dining arrives in temperature-controlled vans. It also comes complete with paintbrushes (for chocolate sauce and coulis of course), customized canapé́ skewers, and tiny glass jars. Fruit is presented in hand made wicker bowls fastened with brass screws, and sourced from Vietnam. And there can’t be anyone anywhere who knows more about miniature squeezy bottles than Dan does. He says, “It took me nine months scouring craft shops all over the world to find the exactly the right ones that are squeezable and malleable.” These are then cut at an angle and star in photo cards he has created showing flight attendants how to plate his dishes temptingly. He also offers training courses for cabin crew, who pitch up to his London base to learn how to swoosh, dab, slide and drizzle in order to serve up food that looks as fabulous as it tastes. Working with the crew lies at the heart of Dan’s success. They are the link to the passengers, and shape much of his thinking. So much so, he recently hired former lead corporate flight attendant Lyndsay Grey to head up his marketing team. With 15-years flying under her belt, Lyndsay has an intimate working knowledge of how journeys pan out on all types of aircraft. Dan explains, “She looks at the food and packaging and says, ‘You know what, that’s going on a Challenger, that’s not going to fit in the galley,’ so we adapt it accordingly.”
Like all the best business people, Dan has a great backstory. Thwarted in his original desire to be a stuntman – he got as far as the interview stage at the London College of Drama but was scuppered because he has diabetes – he turned to cooking at a time when London was bristling with celebrity chefs and Avant- garde cuisine. The knives and heat of kitchen life suited him, and he soon won a young apprentice of the year award. Buoyed by success and keen for new adventures, he set off to see the world, and earned his rights of passage as a yacht chef. He remembers, “It was a baptism of fire, working in a small galley sometimes catering for large parties. I was constantly thinking, where are we going? What have I got in stock? Sourcing the supplies and preparing the meals is often just down to one person, which has given me a good understanding of the challenges of being a flight attendant.” Between stints at sea he headed to Thailand, where he immersed himself in another area of sensory delight as a scuba diving instructor.
After a few years carousing, he returned to the UK, where he met his Chilean wife Isabel – the powerhouse behind the OnAir brand. (It was she who thought of the flip cards and training courses, and persuaded him to contact flight attendants). The pair headed to Spain, living near Valencia during the 2007 America’s Cup. On a hunch they contacted the organizers, and were invited to do a tasting, after which Dan had five days to produce a high- end barbeque for a party of 400. He corralled two chef buddies, borrowed a bar for the weekend, and worked 48-hours straight, earning himself work for the next 18-months. The good times continued, until recession hit, and the Hulmes were forced to return to London – now with two babies in tow. However, they had noticed the proliferation of private jets on the tarmac and wondered who was doing the catering for them?
Isabel explains, “We spent the next two years conducting market research and fundraising, and in 2010 set up the business. It is Dan’s passion, so I am happy to go with him on his journey.” Initially pairing with a London events firm, today the couple flies solo, with several staff on its books; cash flow that means Dan does much less cooking (although he is in the kitchen most days), and have just secured their second round of investment funding. They have a dedicated kitchen of their own, which includes an experimental zone, where the chefs can play with fire to their hearts’ content. Ideas on the horizon include more courses for flight attendants, Blumenthal-style molecular cooking, and opening offices abroad. Dan enthuses, “The clients who fly on the aircraft we cater for drink the best wines, go to the best restaurants, and have their own personal chefs. They understand the passion behind our product, and how we put it together. For sure there’s a lot of love that goes in there, but at the end of the day you need to offer quality.” Having had the pleasure of OnAir’s world of fine dining, I raise my glass to that.