Emirates - the biggest long-haul airline in the world - gave the Herald an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at its massive food operation and drinks programme at the Dubai hub from where it flies to 140 destinations. One of the airline's top executives explains why it got into the wine business and has gone on to be one of the world's biggest champagne buyers, the big changes coming up as the airline faces pressure from its competitors and he fronts up on the challenge facing all airlines - serving up the perfect omelette at 40,000 feet.
Joost Heymeijer has a simple description of what is a colossal job.
''If you turned an airplane upside down and shook it, everything that falls out is my responsibility.''
His job title, senior vice president inflight catering and service delivery at Emirates Airline, is a more formal description of what does for Emirates, the biggest long-haul airline in the world - which flies close to 60 million passengers a year.
Turn an Airbus A380 upside down and there's 70,000 pieces of equipment under Heymeijer's brief that could fall out. Emirates has 108 of those in its fleet and 54 still to come.
That's a mountain of food, wine, beer, spirits, food carts, drinks trollies, containers, glasses, crockery, cutlery, blankets, serviettes, pillows, headsets and swizzle sticks to fly around the world in the super jumbos.
And then there's the Boeing 777s - not as big - but the airline has 164 of those and another 150 on the way. Heymeijer is ultimately responsible for ensuring the passenger comforts are right, are loaded onto where they need to be and, in a seeming logistical miracle, at the right time.
Established more than three decades ago, government-owned Emirates has always been what he describes as an ''aspirational airline'' - among the first to provide a new layer of luxury in premium cabins including showers for First-Class passengers in its A380. But others have been working to catch up.
The stakes are especially high in premium cabins - where across the industry about 5 per cent of passengers travel but provide more than a quarter of airline revenue.
Qatar Airways (an airline rival and owned by the country now subject to a blockade by the United Arab Emirates and its allies) is rolling out its patented First Class-style Q-Suites in Business Class around the world, including this market; Singapore Airlines is upgrading its premium cabins and, here, Air New Zealand is working on a revolutionary new Business Premier cabin.
While Emirates is on track for its 31st successive year of profit when it reports next week, that comes after its half-year profit tumbled 86 per cent to $93m as oil prices weren't in a sweet spot for the airline.
If the strain of getting it right day after day for millions of passengers, the self-described Dutch-Aussie doesn't show it. The former elite swimmer still gets into the pool regularly before work in Dubai to relax and, with nearly 30 years in hospitality, he's a relaxed juggler of many moving parts.
Into the $40m inner sanctum
In a massive warehouse near Dubai International Airport, a month's worth of Emirates' non-food consumables are stacked high up to the roof. But there's an inner sanctum which Heymeijer is especially proud of: The wine storage facility where $40m of wine is kept in temperature-controlled comfort.
He's passionate about food, glassware and linen - but join him in the voluminous Dubai wine storage area and his eyes really light up.
The airline has invested heavily in wine, taking its own path.
''We're exceptionally proud of our wine programme - we made a call about 15 years ago to no longer rely on what the consultants can buy for us and what's available in the market at the time.''
The airline has developed close relationships within wine-producing countries, including New Zealand among around a dozen others.
Since 2006, the airline has invested $1.1 billion in wine from around the world, offering more than 80 wines and champagnes across its network daily - with 70 per cent consumed in Economy. He says the airline is the biggest consumer of Dom Perignon in the world, and one of the largest champagne buyers overall.
Heymeijer says the secret is to buy wines early and hold on to them. There's a cache of wine being stored in France.
''We have wine storage in the Burgundy and Bordeaux area, where we're ageing 7.5 million bottles of wine. Over time we will know when they're ready and they will come onto our aircraft. It's a very different approach - we are in charge, we develop the relationship and we go directly to the suppliers.''
He's a big supporter of New Zealand wine, having spent time here on holiday and on work trips. He says you won't find the 2018 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on airlines anywhere else in the world.
''We have a good relationship with Cloudy Bay, we get a good allocation and it's a super popular wine, not just in New Zealand and Australia, but people all over the world ask for this wine.''
Emirates splits the world into five parts. You're more likely to get a New Zealand wine on flights to Australasia but they're also on board for other regions. It can be a huge break for wine supplier but is a mighty undertaking.
Wine experts at the airline have a good idea of what's good around the world.
''Winemakers are asked to send in samples and those who make the first cut go before a tasting panel - from that we will decide whether we like it and whether they can supply volumes that are required.''
Despite its base in Muslim Dubai, with strict attitudes and rules around alcohol, the airline believes its extensive drinks menu fits the region's reputation for hospitality. However, on flights to deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, drinks aren't served.
And in spite of pouring millions of litres of wine, beer and spirits a year, misbehaving passengers aren't a big problem, although pre-loading in lounges or other flights makes it more difficult for crew.
''The crew are trained to make sure when they might get to the point of intoxication that we slow down and serve non-alcoholic drinks,'' he says.
Cooking for 225,000 - every day
Emirates Flight Catering is 90 per cent owned by the airline group and prepares up to 225,000 meals a day, most for Emirates aircraft and lounges.
Heymeijer is responsible for the menu from a database of 40,000 meals and it changes every month. It has an Arabic base but is different to all five regions and even within regions. There are nine cities in India where local tastes must be catered for.
''We've seen a major shift towards those that want to eat authentic meals - not all of them are super pretty. It is a battle to begin with to convince people that food produced on a mass scale is done with the same passion and the same craft that you get in regular restaurants.''
He says the airline doesn't use powders to make omelettes or mashed potatoes.
When asked about the secret to a good airline omelette, he says it's a challenge.
Each day Emirates has 24,000 omelettes made in Dubai. They are done by hand, blast chilled and are moist when loaded onto planes.
''If an omelette goes into an oven at he right temperature at the right amount of time you will have the perfect omelette - what we can never predict is turbulence or anything that stops our crew from delivering that omelette to your seat at the right time,'' he says.
Likewise, scrambled eggs are tricky.
You won't find raw food like oysters and sushi and sashimi on board because of the health risk.
Cold starters are always more straightforward than any hot meal, given the limited equipment, space and time constraints for crew in aircraft galleys. When loaded, most hot dishes are close to cooked to but there's still some finishing to do.
And there are some regional trends. In premium cabins where there are a lot of western Europeans or those from Australasia, steaks are medium rare. While the US market and Middle East like their steaks much more well done.
When he's travelling, he approaches the menu through the wine list.
''I'm a little different because I'm a hospitality tragic and when I'm lucky enough to travel in Business and sometimes in First, the first thing I do is look at the wine list, and when I see a wine that I like I will go to the menu and match it.''
Aircraft have humidity well controlled but your palate is always going to dulled at altitude.
''We recommend dishes that are full in flavour - those with a spice rub, stew, or a curry.''
Presentation is also important.
''People eat with the eye. It's not just the food and the ingredients but we also think what will it look like on the plate. We look for colour variation and there's design elements so it doesn't look like you're in line at an army dinner.''
Airline food of the future
Ahead for Emirates there are some operational changes and big changes around food.
Heymeijer says the airline will be introducing a pre-order system in Business and First Class, possibly later this year, like Singapore Airlines' ''Book the Cook''. This helps avoid waste but there's IT systems to get right before it can be introduced.
Emirates is also taking the leap into Premium Economy, which has been around since the early 1990s on other airlines but until now eschewed by Middle Eastern carriers.
He says it will most likely be introduced around the middle of next year when it takes delivery of its first new-generation 777 - the 777X.
''It is what it says - it's not business lite.''
But there will be wider seats, better pillows and blankets and other amenities. Research shows passengers are not too worried about the food, though - they want to come for the ability to sleep.
'We will serve the standard Economy meal but there will be the opportunity for passengers to pre-order and upgrade their meals to a Business Class meal,'' he says.
''Premium Economy is brand new territory as well as the pre-ordering and upgrading meals - it is part of the changing nature and changing face of the airline industry.''
The airline is under constant pressure to reduce to the weight of crockery and cutlery to cut fuel burn.
''Sustainability and the environment are no longer buzzwords - it's how we operate. Like any other airline, we're going through a massive programme of how we separate the trees from the forest and what we are going to do is properly sustainable and not just green wash.''
Asked about carrying the weight of 570 litres of water to provide showers for 14 First Class passengers in A380s, he repeats that Emirates is an aspirational airline.
''There's competition out there - for us to offer these showers on the aircraft is a unique selling point, I don't know going forward, with Boeing 777s and 787s, what the offering might be.''
Mads Houlberg, chief commercial officer of Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC), says there's some big changes coming for airline food. His company is investigating sous vide cooking, where proteins or vegetables are sealed in plastic bags and cooked at relatively low temperatures for long periods.
''It's simple to do on a small scale, it literally means cooking in a bag in a water bath - you don't lose any moisture, you retain the flavours.''
Houlberg says EKFC next year also hopes to be able to pick leafy vegetables from what will be the world's biggest vertical farm near the Expo 2020 (where the catering firm will provide food for the New Zealand pavilion).
The 12,000sqm site will cost about $60m to build and grow plants with a fraction of the carbon footprint of those which have to be imported.
Synthetic meat is on the radar also. There are already 26 specialty meals on Emirates' menu and it would fit among those.
On a recent visit to New Zealand scouting for suppliers for EKFC's Expo catering operation, he sampled Sunfed Meats' chickenless chicken.
Inside Emirates giant flight kitchen
At the heart of Emirates Flight Catering's massive operation is a sealed room where food from around the airline's network is checked and anything that prompts a customer complaint is examined.
The room has chillers where what is on food carts are audited to ensure standards are consistent from contract caterers thousands of kilometres away from the airline's Dubai hub.
''We bring it back and store it in the chillers for our hygiene team to come and do some testing. There are random checks and then more specific checks,'' says senior operations manager for Emirates Flight Catering Bassam Riachi.
''If there is any complaint from customers we remove a dish on arrival and store it in here for us and the airline to inspect it.''
The audit process is one part of a complex chain in the operation that covers an area equivalent to 28 rugby pitches.
Riachi reckons he averages nine kilometres a day walking around the facility.
There's two areas of EKFC - the part that produces meals for premium cabins and the one for Economy Class passengers.
The process is the same in each - although the food is different. A tour of the complex first involves a security check, airport-style scanning and wearing gear for hygiene purposes, including one of four million hairnets issued to staff and visitors a year.
Around 200 trucks a day arrive at the premium catering receiving bay each day, produce is on plastic grey pallets (no wood is allowed in because of the risk of bugs hitching a ride) and everything that arrives is 3-D scanned by police stationed in the complex. They're looking for anything that pose a risk to travellers including chemicals, explosives and knives. Just-in-time deliveries are made around the cadence of Emirates flights. Cooking starts around 18 hours before takeoff and meals are ready 12 hours before then. They're chilled and ready for loading on to aircraft two to three hours before takeoff.
Time to do the dishes
Beyond the big chillers and where any boxed or tinned food is taken out of its packaging, there's one of the key parts of the operation. In the Warewash area the process for washing 3.1 million pieces of catering equipment starts. Every piece of crockery, cutlery, glassware, carts and containers are washed in an area that resembles organised chaos.
About 100 staff manually recover equipment from carts straight off planes and what needs washing in put through up to 17 giant dishwashers by up to 12 staff on each one that is specially calibrated with chemicals, water temperature and speed, depending on what's going through it. The dishes are inspected twice by people after washing and drying then put on a conveyor belt through the building to the area where the carts are repacked in preparation for loading into planes. About 11,500 staff work at EKFC.
Cooking up a storm
Next to the cold room where salads are prepared is the hot kitchen, where up to 70 people per shift (there are three in the 24/7 operation) cook in different cuisine sections - Indian, Asian, Arabic and Continental where western food is cooked.
For safety reason there is no gas so it's all electric cooking. There are six to eight chefs looking after their own food section. The final 10 per cent of the cooking can be done in the galleys on planes. Chefs test a sample dish from every batch of food and around three times a week Emirates quality teams will come and taste meals.
Putting it all together
There's not a lot of mechanisation making up meals but it is done using assembly line principles. There's even a special team to make sure KitKats get to where they need to be. The dishes are presented according to a photo plan and food is constantly monitored for temperature with thermometers. When it comes to loading carts, a single staff member is responsible for a single flight.
The carts are chilled to 1.5C to 3C before being loaded on to high loaders that park up beside aircraft on the ramp. For an A380 there are about 100 containers that slot into slots in galleys and about 140 meal and laundry carts. There's a bag for silverware that goes into the premium bar. Besides food, about 14,000 magazines (97 different titles) are loaded up every day along with 1900 amenity bags for premium passengers. Putting it all together is crucial, aircraft are on the ground for less than two hours and the EKFC needs to be able to give the plane to the crew 60 minutes from departure.
• The Herald visited Dubai courtesy of Emirates