October 2019
An appetite for innovation

Leo Shing from Cathay Pacific Catering Services ("CPCS") talks about his approach to balancing quality, variety and efficiency in one of the world’s busiest flight kitchens.

Can you tell us about your role at CPCS and your personal journey as a chef?

I'm currently a sous chef in the research and development team. I'm responsible for exploring new cooking techniques and ingredients to make sure we're always improving the quality and variety of our food and also the efficiency of our methods. We cater to more than 52 airlines and on average we cook for about 200 flights per day, so we're constantly trying to perfect that balance.

I attended the Chinese Culinary Institute after secondary school, then worked in various restaurants before joining CPCS as a trainee in 2004. From a young age, I knew I wanted to have a career in food – mainly because I liked eating it so much! I still enjoy eating but I also love experimenting with food and how to prepare and serve it. I'm also very interested in the nutritional side of it.

What would you say is different or more exciting about working in airline catering?

The kitchens are much bigger than in hotels and restaurants, but it's also different in terms of preparation. At CPCS, we are meticulous about our production processes – and that demands exceptional management to make sure all of our chefs are cooking consistently, for example. At the same time, it's not mechanical: there's always an artistic element to putting dishes together.

The variety is also very stimulating. Cathay Pacific is our biggest single customer, but we provide food for so many different airlines from all around the world: Japanese, Malaysian, Indian, Western, Middle Eastern. And we cook in each of these different styles.

What changes have you seen over your time at CPCS?

When I started, we were producing around 60,000 meals per day. Today, it's typically anywhere up to 90,000. But the main changes have been around automation. The machines we use are bigger, more sophisticated, more efficient. One example that has really been a game-changer is the introduction of the large auto-braising machines we use. You can effectively programme them to run themselves, which takes a lot of the physical labour out of the process and frees us up to be more creative.

Another piece of equipment that has changed how we operate is an omelette station that requires much less supervision than if you were doing everything manually. We're also looking to install automated filling technology that can feed ingredients into our machines. That will allow us to move towards an automated inventory management model.

With automatic cooking machines such as the omelette station, consistency and efficiency during the cooking process are improved.
An automated omelette station improves consistency and efficiency.

The game-changing auto-braising machines free up cooking staff for high-value work.
The game-changing auto-braising machines free up cooking staff for high-value work.


What are some of the other demands and challenges of the job?

We are continually challenging ourselves to find the best ingredients for the best price. We also have to stimulate our customers' taste-buds by staying on top of what's new in the market and striving to replicate wider trends in food and cooking methods. The challenge is doing that within the constraints of inflight catering, where we cook everything on the ground, chill it, then re-heat it in the air before serving. Each step has to be considered very carefully and we're always very rigorous about maintaining the highest food safety standards.

There are different challenges depending on who you are cooking for. If you're cooking 2,000 or 3,000 portions of beef curry in one go, you need to look for pre-cut beef or pre-cut vegetables to make it possible to get those meals cooked. When you are creating dishes for passengers in First or Business class, obviously you can be more focused on the complexity of the flavours and how to present the food in the best way possible.

A selection of international and contemporary Asian dishes are available to passengers in all classes on Cathay Pacific flights.
A selection of international and contemporary Asian dishes are available to passengers in all classes on Cathay Pacific flights.

Are there any CPCS innovations you're particularly proud of?

Yes: our inflight burger on Cathay flights. Serving burgers on a plane is a real challenge. The burger can't be prepared in advance, because you need to cook the meat but not the bun, the cheese, the sauces, or the vegetables. We separated all the different components and they're actually reconstructed on the plane after the patty is heated. In a sense it's simple food – but not on a plane!

I'm also proud of the Hong Kong favourites we serve on Cathay flights. Cooking Chinese food is very much my passion – it's what I still enjoy cooking at home.

What makes you happiest in your job?

There's a lot of trial and error in R&D and statistically speaking that means most of the time it's error. But that makes it all the more rewarding when you hit on a success. When that happens there's a great sense of team spirit.
Swire News September 2019 issue
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