March 31 2020  |  Catering

World at the door for Emirates Flight Catering

By Rick Lundstrom

This is a special feature from PAX International's April World Travel Catering and Onboard Services Hamburg 2020 edition.

Through a partnership with Cuisine Solutions, Emirates Flight Catering is planning a sous vide production facility in Dubai

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) metro center of Dubai has built its worldwide reputation on a myriad of attractions and projects that lay claim to be the “largest” or “newest,” and, over a short period of time, built a skyline that is dazzling in its innovation and grandeur.

But the year ahead may be one of the most challenging for the emirate as it busily prepared to welcome the world to the emirate for Expo 2020. However, organizers are now planning to postpone the event due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Once up and running, Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC), will be supplying fairgoers with cutting-edge cuisine as part of the Expo Culinary Experience. During the Expo, a planned 50 million meals are expected to be served – twice as many meals as there are people expected to attend.

In a region that still imports nearly all of its food products and is constantly on the hunt for labor will be a particularly challenge for EKFC’s Chief Executive Officer, Saeed Mohammed, and the catering unit’s 11,000 employees.

Much of the preparation was underway when PAX International visited EKFC in December. And much more will take place as the caterer looks at news ways to become more sustainable as an organization and takes steps to become the largest sous vide meal producer in the UAE.

The latter will be done with the help of a partner that has a long history in supplying entrees to airlines. From Sterling, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., Cuisine Solutions joined EKFC in Dubai this past autumn to announce the formation of Emirates Cuisine Solutions, giving the caterer the distinction of being the exclusive sous vide supplier in the MENA region.

“We have been using sous vide products before our joint venture partnership with Cuisine Solutions. The reason we chose Cuisine Solutions [is] we have been buying the products [for the] past two years,” Mohammed tells PAX International. The caterer has also set aside a production line to handle sous vide entrees and other dishes. In the future, Mohammed says EKFC will ramp up its involvement to be the largest halal-certified sous vide supplier in the world.

With such a capacity, Mohammed says EKFC will have the rare chance to export products, in addition to filling the needs of hotels and restaurants around the UAE.

Sous vide cooking is done by sealing entrees and other dishes in plastic and immersing in a warm water bath to cook over a long period. They are then flash frozen to retain moisture and freshness. Combined with sauces and flavorings, the meals have become a convenient way for caterers to bring high quality meals to the airline cabin, particularly in First and Business Class.

The arrangement between Emirates Flight Catering and Cuisine Solutions is structured on two independent businesses: The distribution and sale of sous vide products to the entire GCC region and Africa, which covers every customer on multiple channels, such as retail, food service, restaurant chains, as well as the airline and cruise line business.

“Volume estimations will depend on the mix of products, as cooking times vary for proteins, grains, sauces, and vegetables,” says Cuisine Solutions President and Chief Executive Officer Felipe Hasselmann. “Our goal is to create the largest halal sous vide manufacturing facility in the world to supply not only the GCC region, but export halal sous vide products to the rest of the world.”

While sales is one part of the equation, the partners will also be seeking to educate potential customers on the benefits of sous vide products. “We have been diligently working together to set up the infrastructure to sell and distribute fully cooked sous vide products to all local channels within the GCC region. We also continue to build our team of knowledgeable chefs, both domestically and internationally,” Hasselmann added.

Farm to table to fair

EKFC’s 130,000 square-foot vertical farm will be located adjacent the massive 4.4 square-kilometer Expo 2020 site. Though located in the desert, the farm will give EKFC the ability to supply “farm to fork” meals that make efficient use of water and are free of herbicides and pesticides. Up to 2,700 kilograms of leafy greens will be used every day for the estimated 25 million visitors, 70 percent of whom are coming from out of the country.

EKFC’s efforts will take place in all three of the Expo site’s thematic districts. Two restaurants will be Michelin-star quality. The Grains and Green section will serve gourmet sandwiches, bowl creations and sharing platters. La Patisserie will provide sweet treats and coffee. Finally, Deli2Go will provide simple fare to be eaten while on the move.

The Expo Culinary Experience at the Expo will feature more than 50 international cuisines. EKFC will be working with a number of entities at the Expo including catering for the Emirates Pavilion, DP World Pavilion and provision of meals for all school children visiting. Getting food and services to the many locations across the Expo site will be only one of the challenges, says Mohammed.

“Our biggest concern, if you ask me about the Expo, is the manpower,” he says. “Because you want to get people on a short-term basis contract.” To do that, EKFC will be offering incentives for contractors to sign up, not only for the Expo itself, but the months leading up to the event and the two-to-three months needed for decommissioning after it ends and the doors close.

“For us, we can offer them a job, if they are good, on a long-term basis,” he adds.

Not only do employees present a challenge but vendors and potential suppliers must also commit to contributing to an Expo that is environmentally conscious and welcoming to all visitors.

Every food and beverage vendor that collaborates must sign a “Food Ethos” pledge to commit to sustainability and local sourcing. Organic produce and environmentally conscious packaging are part of the agreement in addition to products that are affordable and sensitive to allergies and intolerances. Vendors are also encouraged to set more ambitious targets for minimizing food packaging and waste.

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