Cooking 175,000 meals daily for more than 135 airlines is a round-the-clock operation.
At Emirates Flight Catering, it involves two food-procurement, preparation and assembly facilities at Casablanca Street in Dubai, where meals for Emirates Airline and other carriers are prepared.
Men and women in overalls and blue gloves work in shifts on the assembly line in the sprawling building catering to Emirates, at work stations that smell freshly baked muffins and bread in the bakery and a whiff of waste food and detergent in the washing area. All of the first-class and business-class meals are cooked here, while 80 per cent of economy-class casseroles are prepared in Jebel Ali.
On average, 105,000 meals go aboard 185 flights a day for Emirates. While food platters are put together on an assembly line for the economy class, a single staff member assembles about 42 trays for first and business-class passengers, handling up to 21 flights a day.
If the next time you fly a dish arrives submerged in oil or a particular option runs out before the food cart reaches you, take a minute to fill out that complaint card.
On-board meals are allocated on the basis of what passengers liked on previous flights and on the choices that a caterer offers an airline. Chefs at Emirates Flight Catering, who dish up gourmet food and dress the desserts, say they take complaints seriously - and follow up with investigations.
Food might not be the deciding factor for passengers in choosing an airline, but "it emerges as a highly significant post-purchase factor", Peter Jones, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Surrey in Britain, wrote in an academic paper in 2007.
With food becoming a marketing tool for long-haul airlines, Emirates Flight Catering uses a total of 381 menus every month, with regional variations for Emirates Airline's 122 destinations in 72 countries. For instance, there is not a single cooking oil preference for flights to India. Coconut oil is used for flights to South India, while it is desi ghee for Delhi flights, says Mukesh Tugnait, an executive chef with Emirates Flight Catering.
This logistical operation involves a food-supply line that stretches three months to a year down the road, as well as in-house bakery, hot kitchens and a dedicated sushi kitchen to provide a "restaurant feel" to airline food, Emirates Flight Catering officials say.
Prices for many food supplies also are fixed a year in advance, which offers some protection against price fluctuations caused by issues such as crop failures.
Most of the food supplies are imported.
Herbs for continental dishes usually come from the Netherlands, and eastern spices come from India and Sri Lanka. But some items, such as cloves and cardamom, are procured from local markets.
While some raw materials are flown in from Europe and South America, others such as tomatoes come from as nearby as Oman.
"This is where the chefs need to be planning their menus against not the season they are in, but the season they are going to fly their menus, and [this is] where good procurement and buying teams come into their own and do their jobs well," said Ian Rutter, an airline food expert based in the United Kingdom.
His company supplies bulk cheeses to Emirates.
One of the highest concerns while handling the food is maintaining the continuity of the cold chain.Food temperatures should not exceed 12°C.
The catering building that supplies Emirates opened in 2007 and added 3,760-square-metres of cold storage in February to serve the expanding airline, which has 69 Airbus A380 aircraft on order.
Emirates Group's decision to retain in-flight catering at a time when many global airlines are outsourcing this function is a way to ensure quality control, the company says.
It also means "we are able to amend a recipe instantly upon being informed by a crew member on board a flight that a dish is not suitable for the passenger profile on board," says James Griffith, the assistant vice president for production at Emirates Flight Catering.