Strapped to your seat 38,000 feet in the air with little more than a good book and several movies to keep you entertained, flying often becomes the least appealing part of any journey. But great in-flight meals more than make up for it, especially if it offers a foretaste of your destination with relish — after all, a wise man once said that travelling well is better than arriving.
On South African Airways, the job of preparing moreish meals falls into the hands of celebrity chef Benny Masekwameng, who is the executive chef of the Tsogo Sun group and a judge in the first season of MasterChef SA. Regarded for his culinary ingenuity and trendsetting concepts, the chef is credited for breathing fresh inspiration into the menus on-board all SAA flights.
We speak to Masekwameng about his experience creating dishes for thousands of international travellers daily.
What sparked your interest in food?
My mother when she started her food business. Seeing the love that she put into each dish and how happy the customers were when they tasted her food made me want to be like her.
Who or what influences the way you cook? Do you take inspiration from a particular region or culinary tradition?
I was born in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. My cooking is largely influenced by the dishes I grew up eating in my mother’s kitchen and the township’s favourite dishes, which were influenced by the different regions and provinces from where people in the township originally came; it was a combination of flavours and interesting takes and ideas. My professional training and travels around the world have also greatly influenced my style of cooking and the type of dishes I make.
Are there special or indigenous ingredients or produce that you enjoy working with?
In South Africa we have an abundance of excellent and interesting ingredients — some of my favourites are peppadews, a type of piquant peppers; waterblommetjies, which is cape pondweed or water hawthorne; rooibos, as well as Karoo lamb, ostrich, amarula, and sultanas, to name a few.
How do you come up with the recipes and concepts behind the in-flight menus and dishes?
I think about what I would enjoy eating while I’m flying, and I also consider the season to determine the ingredients, which are at their peak. I like creating dishes that represent South Africa in preparation, flavour, and presentation.
What is unique about the in-flight dishes?
The dishes give passengers a glimpse into South Africa in bite-sized pieces, and provide a delicious introduction to the food and drinks that you can expect on touchdown in our beautiful country.
What are the challenges involved in preparing in-flight meals?
Consistency in the quality of ingredients, preparation, and service.
It has been observed that our sense of taste is affected in the dry, pressurised cabin of an airplane. How do you overcome this problem?
We constantly test and monitor our offerings both in the kitchens and on-board when flying to different destinations. We also listen to feedback from our guests and take into consideration their recommendations and suggestions on what they like or enjoy on-board. This helps us to plan our menus and introduce items that can keep our customers delighted.
Are the dishes also designed to be matched with wine, particularly wines from South Africa?
Food and wine always go hand in hand and there is a constant quest to present the best of both worlds. In fact, a lot of world class wines are also complemented by authentic South African dishes that tell the world about our country’s hospitality.
What else can passengers expect to see on the in-flight menus?
We are constantly trying out new ideas and dishes to tell a South African story. Our talented team of South African chefs will continue to provide the best that our country has to offer when it comes to food and wine for our guests on-board.
Planning a visit to South Africa? Look out for our Andbeyond game drive feature in Gourmet & Travel’s latest issue. South African Airways (SAA) offers daily services between Asia and South Africa. To find out more, visit: www.flysaa.com