When Poh Ling Yeow creates a dish, the recipe is usually drawn up for between four and eight people. Ten at most.
However, her new collaboration with Malaysia Airlines (MAS) means preparing meals for a fully loaded Airbus A330-300 filled with 283 passengers, which can be quite a daunting process.
Not just because of the quantities involved, there is also the logistics of preparing those meals in a catering facility, plating each individual dish before blast-chilling them and then transferring cart-loads of food over to the aircraft.
And the journey does not end there. Crews on board then reheat the food in on-board ovens that, although improving, still have the potential to destroy what is under that piece of foil.
Therefore, her signature dish to be served on all MAS’s flights out of Australia and New Zealand to the airline’s Kuala Lumpur hub from December 1 had to not only reflect her Malaysian upbringing, but also “withstands all the issues of plating up food in the air”.
The result is a Nyonya chicken curry, a traditional dish that incorporates ingredients from both traditional Malay cooking as well as the Malaysian Chinese community, served with rice.
Yeow says her “definitely Malaysian dish” is a “very humble meal” that evokes memories of family and comfort.
“I wanted to come up with something that could be heated up easily and would not be destroyed in the heating so it had to be nothing delicate,” she tells Australian Aviation.
“It had to be quite a robust dish that could withstand the logistics of making food for the air.
“I wanted to give passengers flavours that really represent Malaysia well.
“My style of cooking is very much informed by my heritage.”
The Masterchef runner-up, television chef and cookbook author joins other Australians Luke Mangan (Virgin Australia), Matt Moran (Singapore Airlines) and Neil Perry (Qantas) as chefs who have lent their expertise in collaboration with an airline.
While Yeow says being the brand ambassador for an airline was never really something she aspired to, the partnership with MAS was a perfect fit given she was a regular on the airline while growing up in Malaysia. And even today she heads back to Malaysia regularly to visit family.
“I don’t think I ever dared to dream that I could have such serious collaboration with a big entity like Malaysia Airlines but it is what I flew growing up living in Malaysia,” Yeow says.
“It is a brand that I associate with home and holidays and stuff like that. So obviously it is a very good match for me.”
With the dish to be served in time for Christmas, Yeow should feel right at home on board a MAS flight should she be travelling on December 25, given the Nyonya chicken curry is her “go-to dish for family occasions”.
“I associate the dish completely with family meals and it is always on the Christmas table, even though it looks completely out of place in Australia, next to the ham,” she says.
Collaborations with chefs outside the airline industry is certainly something MAS executive chef and food and beverage manager Zahiddin Dris both welcomes and encourages.
He says they bring a fresh perspective to cooking for people at 40,000 feet and has learned a lot from the likes of Yeow, Amandine Chaignot from the Raphael Hotel in Paris and Michelin Star chef Richard Corrigan.
“I’m really excited about working with Poh because airline catering needs people from outside the industry to spice-up and enhance the concept of inflight catering,” Zahiddin says.
Zahiddin, who describes his role as 40 per cent chef, 60 per cent engineer given the logistics involved in preparing the meals, says the advances in on-board technology, particularly the improvement in the ovens which now offer dry and steam heating options, means cabin crew can be much more creative with the available ingredients. He cites the humble egg as one example.
“Our menu only provides instructions for scrambled eggs and sunny side up,” he says.
“When I was on board the crew told me they could do poached eggs, they could do eggs bennedict with the the ingredients on board and the equipment and tools now available.”
It was perhaps an oven malfunction that caused Yeow to have her ever worst in-flight meal, when everything on the tray was served hot.
“You’d like to think that they don’t put everything in the oven, that there are some things that you can just pop on the tray at the last minute,” she recalls thinking at the time.
“But I swear my fruit salad and my butter and my yoghurt just got blitzed because everything was ragingly hot. The fruit salad was hot. That was weird.
“When I went to butter my bread I opened the butter container and it was liquid and it just went straight on my crotch.
“It was really embarrassing and a horrible experience and the food was awful.”
MAS operates 84 flights a week Australia, with service from its Kuala Lumpur hub to Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Darwin. It is ninth largest international carrier operating to Australia, according to the latest government statistics.
The airline has been hit by two disasters in 2014, with the disappearance of MH370 followed by the shooting down of MH17. The Malaysian flag carrier is currently undergoing a massive restructure that involves cutting about 6,000 jobs – some 30 per cent of its workforce – in addition to exiting routes and trimming its fleet a bid to turn around heavy losses.
MAS senior regional vice president for Australia, New Zealand and South West Pacific Lee Poh Kait says the airline remains committed to Australia, illustrated by the decision to boost capacity Down Under this year.
“We will continue to grow in this market,” Lee says.
“Australia is important, is so huge for Malaysia Airlines that outside Malaysia, Australia is our largest market.”
Yeow says she has “nothing but sympathy” for the victims of MH17 and MH370.
“Obviously I feel absolutely dreadful and a huge amount of sympathy for people who have lost loved ones on both those flights,” Yeow says.
“I just think they were just freakish incidents and it could have been any airline.
“From all the research I have done Malaysia Airlines still holds a really fantastic safety record and are well-known for their impeccable on-board service.”