The comfort and luxury of having an expert chef prepare a meal in front of you is an alien concept for all commercial airlines and most private air services.
Fine dining in the clouds
Thomas Ulherr has made many memorable creations in his career as an executive chef, but the masterpiece that won him the most fame recently involved two large iguanas. At the International Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany, last year, Mr Ulherr, the catering manager and executive chef for Royal Jet, the Abu Dhabi-based VIP air operator, took home three gold medals, one silver and two bronze on behalf of his employer. One of those gold medals was awarded for his work with two green iguanas, each weighing 15kg and made of salt dough. Judges appreciated the painstaking work that Mr Ulherr had put into creating the two reptiles, perched delicately on a salt dough branch. "It went into the books as being one of the best ones, the detailed work was really extraordinary," Mr Ulherr says. The gold medallist is at the forefront of Royal Jet's efforts to keep abreast of an increasingly crowded market. "Whatever the client wants" is the mantra for Royal Jet's 300-strong staff. The company's über-rich clients want comfort, discretion and sublime service, officials say. But they also want something special to eat, giving new importance to the work of Mr Ulherr amid increasing competition. Charter brokers say Royal Jet, which reportedly has a market-leading 17 per cent share in the UAE VIP air travel industry, has its own niche. It flies five Boeing Business Jets (BBJs) - the largest such fleet in the world - that are outfitted with 40 seats, instead of the 150 for which they were designed. The airline, recently crowned the World's Leading Private Jet Charter for the second successive year by the World Travel Awards, also has a critical link with Abu Dhabi's wealthy elite through its lineage to Presidential Flight Authority (PFA), formerly known as Amiri Flight. PFA, which helped to create Royal Jet in 2003 and allocated the five BBJs to the start-up, serves as the air service for about 20 of the most important members of the royal family from its gilded terminal, replete with chandeliers and marbled floors, at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Remaining members of the royal family, as well as foreign diplomats and government ministers, often fly Royal Jet because of its award-winning service and its spacious BBJs, which brokers say can cost about US$13,000 (Dh47,749) per hour. "Most of the time, they do not have any availability," says Abdul Charafeddin, an operations and quality controller at United Aviation Services (UAS), an air charter broker based in Dubai. But new competition is on the way even as rates have dropped 20 to 40 per cent across the market due to the global financial downturn. Bateen Airbase, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi, is being remade into an exclusive hub for executive air travel. Existing firms such as Prestige Jet and Falcon Aviation will soon see Al Jaber Aviation, Saraya Skies and others set up at the airport. Even with its niche, Royal Jet officials say they cannot take their customers' loyalty for granted. "In terms of repeat business, it is extremely high," says John Morgan, the vice president of commercial operations at Royal Jet. "But we still have to offer exceptional value for money. We are not price inelastic." The new competition and falling global demand puts new emphasis on the work of Mr Ulherr, who spent six months making the two iguana salt-dough sculptures. He has found his creations are an ideal way to celebrate a special event, such as an edible sculpture of a BBJ on a tarmac for Royal Jet's sixth anniversary. Last month, clients hired four Royal Jet BBJs for the Formula One race in Bahrain and Mr Ulherr came along and produced a doughy Formula One speedster. "I can work on them until 4am without even checking my watch," he says. The comfort and luxury of having an expert chef prepare a meal in front of you is an alien concept for all commercial airlines and most private air services. But in March, Royal Jet became possibly the first service in the world to include the option of having an on-board chef travel with its guests. The service is available for any flight, from a one-day trip to Beirut to a three-week business tour of Africa. At a recent tasting session highlighting its inflight capabilities, the German cooking champion was on board a Royal Jet BBJ parked on the tarmac at Abu Dhabi airport. Donning a chef's jacket with his list of gold medal triumphs emblazoned on the back, Mr Ulherr had started with his amuse-bouche of truffled quail eggs and smoked bluefin tuna tartar. Next up was the type of eclectic dish that could have originated only from a lifelong food experimentalist: tom yum caviar spaghetti and lobster ragout, described on the menu as a "stunning fusion recipe that breaks with Asian and western traditions". The Thai pasta is accompanied by an alcohol-free sauvignon sauce made of fennel and other herbs and whisked into a foam with egg yolk. For the crowning moment, Mr Ulherr dumps a whole tin of Beluga caviar into the sauce. The result is a rich, creamy and salty wonder of taste that almost makes the high cost of private travel seem worthwhile. "Adding caviar at the last moment works wonders," says Mr Ulherr. The dish was conceived a decade ago, when he was executive chef at Petrov, a Russian restaurant at Le Meridien in Abu Dhabi. It was the top-selling dish for nearly two years, he says. Petrov's closed shortly after Mr Ulherr left the restaurant. Airlines and VIP services alike have strict rules governing food service at 9,000 metres. Accordingly, the on-board chefs stop short of cooking food from scratch. Most food must be pre-prepared and only completed inflight, although cooking eggs is allowed. Royal Jet's inflight chefs may not cook raw meat onboard the aircraft, although they can sear meat beforehand and finish the dish according to the passengers' wishes. But they can provide an extra layer of service for their customers' discriminating tastes. An on-board chef can oversee the food preparation, create custom-tailored menus, answer guests' queries and arrange for top-grade food to be purchased at foreign locations from airport catering services, five-star hotels, or wherever else it takes to satisfy a client's wish list. The chefs even play a part in entertaining guests. Mr Morgan stresses that the overall service is what counts at Royal Jet, and not one standout star such as Mr Ulherr. "It is not so much people identifying small parts that were excellent," he says. "We want total excellence, so that when our guests come off a flight they loved the entire experience, rather than homing in on small parts of it. But with Thomas," he concedes, "you know that side of the business is in great hands." email@example.com