x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pie (and more) in the sky

Saloon Cooking for every Emirates Airline passenger.

James Griffith runs the Emirates Airline kitchen, which might make him the world's busiest chef.
James Griffith runs the Emirates Airline kitchen, which might make him the world's busiest chef.

Cooking for every Emirates Airline passenger. When people ask the Mirdif resident James Griffith what he does for a living, he almost always gives the same response: "I tell them I'm a cook." Griffith's job is actually a little more complicated than this. His official title is assistant vice president for Emirates Flight Catering, but that doesn't tell the whole story, either. What Griffith does is run the Emirates Airline kitchen, which might make him the busiest chef in the world.

Originally from the island of Honolulu in Hawaii, Griffith, 42, moved to Dubai in 1992, around the time the city's hospitality industry was starting to take off. He worked for a while at the Dubai Hilton, then the Hyatt Regency, and then Emirates Flight Catering, figuring he'd stay for a year or two. Ten years and about 200 million meals later, he's still there. Griffith has spiky dark hair and a slightly stocky build, and in his spare time, he rides with a group of Harley Davidson buffs, but he is not what you'd call the biker type. He also doesn't quite fit the mould of the high-powered chef - at least not the ones we see on TV, who tend to give the impression that the fate of the planet can hinge on the texture of a single seared scallop.

The kitchen Griffith runs is a little more hectic than most, preparing the food for every aeroplane that takes off from Dubai International, but he is not a man given to histrionics. On an average day, he says, he and his team produce something like 80,000 meals. Soon, he adds, he expects to reach the 115,000 mark, the facility's absolute limit, for the first time ever. He revealed this fact while passing through security at the Emirates Catering complex, barely breaking his stride.

Furthermore, Griffith expected to meet this milestone around July 1, at the same time that each of his kitchen's 250-plus menus would be undergoing its monthly overhaul. "Menu changes can be confusing," he says. "That can be difficult." Griffith didn't act like a man who could very well have been approaching the most confusing and difficult week of his life. Even when describing the potential pitfalls that haunt his dreams - a plane bound for New York, for instance, being loaded with the sushi meant for a Tokyo flight - he offered little more than a thin smile.

But then, unlike his celebrity counterparts, Griffith's work doesn't leave much room for melodrama. There are currently 441 people employed in the main Emirates kitchen - 5,000 in the entire catering complex - and orchestratingtheir activities requires equal amounts of personal discipline, obsessive organisation and blind optimism. "There are issues," Griffith said. "It can create anxiety if a plane is leaving in an hour and you can't find the bread rolls."

He recalled an incident a while back, "the Big Fog", when more than 100 planes were grounded in Dubai, which meant loading the food onto each aircraft in the hope it would be cleared for take-off, then unloading it when clearance wasn't granted, then remaking a fresh batch of food for each plane, then reloading, then offloading, over and over. "If you lose it, everyone else gets nervous," he said. "You have to stay calm."

On the best of days, the Emirates kitchen appears to be teetering on the edge of chaos. The place is a sprawling warren of sections and subsections that, for the uninitiated, is impossible to navigate. You turn one corner to enter a complex of warehouse-sized freezers, another into an area where men stand before a speeding conveyor belt, slapping lids on an endless parade of prawn salads. And everywhere you look, you see food, food, food: acres of lamb loins, mountains of carrots, seas of chickpea salad, all seemingly without a home.

Throughout the complex there are masses of people, pushing trolleys or flipping omelettes, all working to ensure the right food gets on the right flight at the right time, each flight requiring culture-specific menus, each requiring enough food to cater for the precise number of people on board. And should a single thing go awry, this has a ripple effect; if the person who orders the apples messes up, then the bakers are in trouble, as are the people who put the lids on the trays that contain the apple pie.

While the Emirates catering facility is touted as being the largest of its kind in the world, the challenges facing Griffith do not end with matters of scale. Unlike many airline kitchens, he says, his makes everything from scratch, and it does not rely on industrial equipment to do so; the pans used to cook more than two million eggs a year are the same as those people use at home. The idea is that even economy-class food will exceed expectations, an effort which has implications beyond whether or not the meatloaf is a little chewy.

"We're not just an airline catering company, we're part of Emirates," Griffith said, "which is part of Dubai. So we have to do it better." Even this somewhat daunting prospect - that the fate of Brand Dubai might rest in part on the consistency of his key lime pie - fails to rattle Griffith. "The only thing that bothers me is when I'm not in control," he said. "Even if we get everything right, it can come down to the cabin crew. Do they heat the food or do they incinerate it?"

* Chris Wright