Cooking for diners who get high before they eat

CACS staff place identically cut slices of fruit in plastic trays.
CACS staff place identically cut slices of fruit in plastic trays. Heng Chivoan

Cooking for diners who get high before they eat

Few people ever notice the 2,000- square-metre food preparation facility that lies partially hidden behind a wall on the road beside Phnom Penh International Airport. But if they were to enter its gates, they might recognise the five white trucks parked out front. The specially fitted hi-lift aircraft catering trucks are used to deliver food supplies, including in-flight meals, to most of the commercial aircraft that land at Phnom Penh airport.

Cambodia Air Catering Services Ltd (CACS) is the exclusive catering company for the Kingdom’s three international airports, supplying airlines and the airport lounges. Its products and services include providing hot and cold meals, snacks, box concepts and beverages, as well as handling laundry and cutlery cleaning.
Not surprisingly, hygiene is a top priority at the CACS facility, and before entering the building staff and visitors are required to stop at a security station for a mandatory health check. At the reception inside, visitors are provided lab coats, surgical masks and a shower cap to wear – the same uniform all company employees are required to wear – before entering the food preparation area.

Paper items, rubber bands and small metal objects are prohibited inside the facility.

A corridor leads to the galley setup, where the appetisers, main courses and desserts on trays are prepared. Nearby in the hot food room the cooking staff are frying tomato omelettes that will be delivered to an early morning flight to be served as breakfast. Once cooked, the omelette and other hot food items on the tray are put into a flash chiller unit that near-instantly lowers the temperature to 5 degrees Celsius. The trays are kept chilled until it is time to reheat them on a flight.

In addition to regular meals, staff must also prepare special meals according to strict dietary guidelines. Almost every flight will have a few passengers who require vegetarian, halal or diabetic meals, or prepared for people with allergies to certain food items such as seafood or nuts.

A sample breakfast dish.
A sample breakfast dish. Heng Chivoan

In the nearby cold food room, fresh fruit and ice cream are stored in refrigerators. The staff are busy cutting fruit into small pieces – each identical in size and shape to the photos provided in the pictorial instructions displayed on the walls.

The same pictorial instructions, issued by the individual airline companies, can be found throughout the building anywhere that food is prepared or packaged.

Steve Callaghan, general manager of CACS, who has four decades of experience working for in-flight catering services in the United States, says quality control is crucial in this line of business, as even the tiniest mistake could be a public relations disaster for the airlines that serve the company’s in-flight meals to 1.7 million passengers a year.

“We pay great attention to quality, quantity, temperature and even the smallest matters,” he said. “We scrutinise our supplies, such as meat and vegetables, very carefully and we will return anything we identify as bad or damaged food to our suppliers.”

For over 20 years, Cambodia Air Catering Services has been the only company in the country that provides in-flight catering services to local and international airline companies whose planes use the airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.

In 2016, global airline catering giant Gate Gourmet, a subsidiary of Swiss-based Gategroup Holding AG, acquired a 70 percent stake in CACS.

The Swiss are notoriously fussy when it comes to food hygiene and quality, adding an extra layer to the company’s already rigorous quality checks.

Callaghan explains that supplying food to airplanes requires acting in strict accordance with international food hygiene standards, such as ISO and HACCP, as well as certification from the Ministry of Health, and in some cases, certification of halal compliance. At the same time, the company must also follow the strict guide-lines of their clients, who obviously want the very best for their passengers.

Hot breakfast trays are wrapped in foil before being chilling.
Hot breakfast trays are wrapped in foil before being chilling. Heng Chivoan

“We always have inspectors from the ministry and our clients coming to inspect our facility,” says Callaghan. “And if something bad were to happen to the food we serve it would mean a big problem for us. But in all those years we have received very few complaints.”

Making a delicious meal for one is simple enough for a chef, but preparing a tasty meal for thousands at a time is a challenge – though one CACS head chef Choun Sokheng has clearly got a handle on. With 22 years of culinary experience at five-star hotels such as Raffles, NagaWorld and Sokha, and training overseas in Japan and Singapore, he admits the switch to preparing in-flight meals took some getting used to.

“In hotels we cook hot food and the customers eat hot food,” Sokheng explains. “But here, even though we are cooking in the same way, we must store the food at the right temperature, and when it is reheated and brought to the passenger, of course it will have lost some of its deliciousness.

“However, we are doing our best to ensure that the passengers enjoy our food by working very closely with our clients to come up with the best meals to match their budgets.”
Currently, CACS has 19 regular clients, including major international airlines such as Emirates and ANA. Its staff prepare nearly 3,000 meals a day at the company’s facility in Phnom Penh and another 2,000 meals in Siem Reap.

According to Callaghan, the company’s revenue topped $14 million in 2017, up from $8 million one year earlier. He admits, however, that the figure could have been far higher. Although CACS is the only company of its kind in Cambodia, it does not serve every airline. Some airlines have their own local food preparation areas; others fly in with the meals they will serve on the flight out.

“Many airlines have their own catering because they want to save the cost, especially on transportation,” he says. “That takes away from us at least $10 million [a year].”
He said another challenge was the budget that airlines were willing allocate for in-flight meals.

“When they are losing money, the first thing they will look to reduce spending on is the food,” he said, adding that this has an obvious impact on the quality and quantity of the in-flight meal that CACS can supply.

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