Can you even imagine what it takes to prepare a mind-boggling 90,000 meals per day – day after day after day? Aussie Rick Stephen, Director of Kitchens, shows Verne Maree around the massive SATS Catering Centre 1 at Changi Airport.
A digital sign in the lift lobby gives an inkling of what to expect: “Meals produced April to June 2013: 6,437,761”. That’s nearly six and a half million meals in the space of three months. More staggering statistics: about five thousand people work in this building, three thousand of them on the production side.
How did you become a chef?
It’s in the family, and started with my grandfather. Growing up in Burnie in northwest Tasmania, my brother and I were already in the restaurant kitchen by the age of six or seven, peeling potatoes before school. And now one of my own sons, Zac, is a fourth-generation Stephens chef.
What did you like about cooking?
Mainly, I loved the excitement and the buzz of the service period. For about two hours you’re pumping it out and it’s very busy, very focused and very intense. I still enjoy that rush! Then there was always a bit of joking and fun to be had afterwards.
Who cooks at home?
I do – when we cook. I like to do little tapas parties for about 20 people, on Australia Day, for example. Living six minutes’ drive from work, in Upper Changi Road East, makes life a bit easier.
What brought you to Singapore five years ago?
A head hunter asked me to apply for a role at Resorts World before it opened, but I was recommended to try out for this position by its previous incumbent, John Sloane. They interviewed me first by phone when I was helping out in the kitchen of Zac’s bistro in Brisbane; it was right in the middle of dinner service, and I honestly thought I’d mucked up the interview. Clearly I hadn’t.
What do you think qualified you to take on this enormously demanding role?
My experience in Australia had just about covered everything. I’d owned my own restaurant for 12 years, Raphael’s in Brisbane, which won every major award – two chef’s hats, three chef’s hats.
I didn’t like the awards, because they tend to create expectations that you don’t necessarily want to fulfil. And we weren’t a city restaurant; located in the suburb of Shorncliffe, overlooking Morton Bay, we specialised in good quality, fresh food – what I called “cuisine of today” – and I relied on repeat suburban customers.
Then I was the exec chef for the Hilton in Cairns, opened up the Hilton in Auckland, NZ and then took a transfer to the Hilton Brisbane. After that, I did a little bit of airline catering for a company called Alpha, supplying Royal Brunei, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines.
Then, because of my involvement in the Culinary Olympics, which are held in Germany every four years, an opportunity came up at the Brisbane Club. My three years there gave me a lot of freedom to experiment. In 1988 I was in Team Australia, in 1992 I was the captain, and in 2000, 2004 and 2008 I was the team manager. We were in the top ten of 36 countries. And from that small club, I moved to this role in Singapore.
How hands-on are you?
I was very hands-on at the Hilton, but that’s not at all the case here, though I do some hands-on work on the development side. But during the 2010 Youth Olympics we were all fully hands-on again, when we were producing most of the food for the Games and had to start at 4am each day just to get it all done.
That was in addition to our normal workload, which runs to something like 50,000 or more meals a day out of this kitchen alone. Here, we purely look after SIA’s approximately 110 flights a day. The other kitchen – just across the tarmac from us – produces an additional 30,000 or more meals each day for major airlines such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Qantas and JAL.
I’ve heard that food and drink can taste different at altitude. Is that a challenge for you?
Yes, it is. One of the best examples of this effect is that a bottle of wine that is average on the ground will taste terrible in the air.
It’s mainly due to the cabin pressure and the low humidity – about six percent in the air as opposed to about 90 percent on the ground in Singapore. Being 30,000 feet in the air definitely affects your taste buds. If you don’t drink plenty of water, your salivary glands dry up and you can’t taste the food as well; so be sure to drink enough.
That’s why we have to choose ingredients, seasonings and recipes that will hold up well in the environment of an aircraft cabin. Our R&D department even has a simulated aircraft cabin under pressure that we can go into to taste the food. Then there’s always seasoning on your tray to help overcome any perceived blandness of the food; but we never use MSG.
I thought you put on a fantastically tasty spread at the recent event held to unveil SIA’s newly designed seats for First Class, Business Class and Economy Class. Where did those recipes come from?
All those dishes were directly from our First and Business Class menus. The beef sous-vide, for example, was exactly what we serve on board. We never use prepared stocks and sauces. Every day we produce 300 litres of chicken stock; and every second day we make large quantities of veal jus for our premium kitchens as the base for garlic or port reductions.
Apart from the staggering number of meals prepared, do any other statistics come to mind?
For one thing, we make 10,000 satay sticks a day, all grilled over live coals in the traditional way. All the international menus are changed monthly; the regional ones change weekly, so as to cater to the many frequent fliers to Bangkok, Jakarta and so on.
Are there any foods that you are not served on board?
Because our food is cooked, chilled and then steam-reheated on the plane, we try to avoid deep-fried foods, which tends to go soggy when exposed to steam.
Sashimi isn’t allowed under the IATA guidelines because it hasn’t received any heat treatment; but we can used smoked salmon, for example, or meat and fish that’s been seared on the outside. For obvious reasons, we avoid ingredients like shark’s fin; we look into sustainability, too, such as whether fish is farmed or wild-caught.
Tell us about the other chef’s hat that you wear.
I’m the continental director for Asia of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies (WACS), which means I oversee 19 countries. At least once a month I have to shoot off to Thailand, Korea or Japan for meetings.
It’s hard to take everything in as Rick takes me on a whistle-stop tour through his impressive domain. As head chef he comes through here every day, he tells me, and from the general smiling, handshaking and camaraderie it looks like a happy workplace.
With only an hour or so in hand, there’s a lot I’m not going to see today: the R&D department, the training department with its simulated aircraft cabin, the PP1 area where all the vegetables are peeled, the canning room, and the stores. To see it all would take two hours, says Rick.
“Our dry store is six storeys high; our freezer storage is four storeys high.
There are about 500 CCTV cameras throughout the facility, even in the chillers, for health and safety reasons.”
All staff access the operations wing from the administration wing, and as they enter the production wing via the link bridge they have to pass through a wind tunnel that blows off any dust or loose hairs on them.
All raw ingredients that come in are immediately “de-cartoned” and put into clean plastic crates; that’s because cartons are likely to be contaminated. The crates immediately go to the sub-stores of each kitchen. After that comes the fish-prep room, where right now they’re filleting black cod and salmon. Next is the pre-prep room for egg and prawn-peeling; then the butchery.
In a special thawing room, they do controlled thawing on separate thawing trolleys for fish, chicken and meat; first in fridges that bring the food up to four degrees, then in others that bring it up to eight degrees, over a 24-hour period. A colour-coding system indicates the day of thawing, and strict attention to this ensures that food is cooked on the particular day intended and not an hour later. The room is completely cleaned, flushed and drained every day.
We come to the premium kitchen, which looks after Western food for First and Business Class. The place bristles with modern equipment, complete with probes to make sure pieces are cooked to exactly the predetermined degree. I admire the new sous vide machine, where short ribs are being cooked for 72 hours.
Like all the kitchens, this one has its own chilling facility that brings the cooked food down to four degrees within four hours. The maximum anything can be is 48 hours old before it’s disposed of, even though it’s been flash-chilled down to four degrees all that time.
Now to the massive main kitchen, which has a number of different sections. First the vegetable blanching area, with a large machine featuring a vat of boiling water on one side and a vat of icy water on the other, all automated. In the next area, they’re cooking noodles and pastas – all pre-timed, all automatic, and absolutely no throwing of spaghetti against the ceiling to check when it’s done.
In the soup kitchen, they’re boiling up chicken stock in one vat and making a hearty, rustic tomato soup in another. In another vat they’re making a reduction sauce, and it all smells utterly delicious. Trays of large roasted bones and separate ones of golden-roasted quartered onions are waiting to go into the next stock; you need the caramelisation to get the flavour, Rick explains.
It took Rick two years to find this type of auto-broiler, one that gives the beef tenderloins that nice, dark scoring. Again, it’s the caramelisation that gives the flavour and that is why we love barbecues.
I love the egg area’s revolving turntable with a dozen electrical hot plates, where three cooks are preparing omelettes – whisking them off the heat while still fluffy and soft. (So if your next SIA breakfast eggs have been turned into rubber, it didn’t happen here.)
Woks sizzle, soup simmers and char siew pork roasts in the Oriental kitchen, then we don facemasks to enter the RTE (ready-to-eat) area. Firstly the big Japanese kitchen, which runs under traditional methods and is headed by three-Michelin-star Chef Murata-san, who lives in Kyoto.
Of course the Indian area smells best of all. There’s delicious-looking vegetarian brinjal in peanut sauce, and they’re deep-frying gram dumplings, the batter prepared in a giant automated pestle and mortar-like machine. There’s a tandoor oven, too, for the popular kebab platters.
I feel sorry for the staff in the Muslim kitchen, as it’s the middle of the fasting season. It’s here that an incredible 10,000 sticks of satay a day are patiently turned by hand over coals in the traditional style. (Less traditional overhead ventilators suck all the smoke away.
All the dim sum is handmade – Eileen and her team are turning out perfect little pork dumplings right now. They make all the speciality siew mai, bao and other delicacies, not only for SIA but for Cathay and for various airline lounges.
Eric’s in charge of pastries, and banana fritters are on the go. How does he stay so slim? Here they make every single cake served on SIA, and even those delectable Belgian-type chocolates served in Business Class. What’s more, all the breads, rolls, croissants and so on are made in-house.
Hungry yet? Better book your next flight on SIA.