Sri Lanka’s biggest kitchen isn’t as homely or aesthetically pleasing as one might expect. Formed in 1979, SriLankan Catering Limited’s lean, mean, production kitchen, nestled 2km away from passenger terminals within the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), can cater up to 25,000 mouth watering meals a day up to the highest quality and hygiene standards in the world.
Food In average, the facility prepares 16,500 meals daily, using a mind-boggling 450kg of potatoes, 400kg of cucumber, 300-600kg of chicken, 500-600kg of fish, 2000 eggs for baking, 200kg of egg yolk for cooking, 550kg of papaya, 600kg of pineapple etc.
Most of the raw materials are obtained fresh from local markets, while production facilities in other countries use frozen food to cook for business class meals, and outsource economy class meals to third parties.
However, a certain amount of imports, such as speciality cheeses and geographically specific raw materials are needed to create menus demanded by international airlines.Local suppliers bring their produce to the receiving bays every morning, which are weighed and colour coded according to the day of the week they arrived. They are then directed to refrigerators and freezers several times larger than an average house.
Preparation for a meal starts two days before a flight departure in case of a hot meal, and one day prior for cold meals.
“We can’t be cooking when the flight is about to depart,” SriLankan Catering Customer Service Assistant Manager Ajith Ullandupitiya said.The meals are cooked and blast frozen, taking the temperature of the food down from 80 degrees Celsius down to 5 degrees within a span of 3 hours.Twenty four hours prior t o a flight departure, the frozen food is taken out, portioned, weighed and placed in crockery and trolleys used in the flight. The staff has to grapple with 13 different crockery, cutlery, napkin and trolley sets which each of the client airlines imports to be used.
The crockery and trolleys are also chilled before the food is put in them to avoid contamination, and then the trolleys are placed in another freezer near a bay to be loaded onto high-lift trucks with chillers on board which delivers them to the aircraft.The food is kept chilled inside the aircraft using either on board chillers or dry ice provided by SriLankan Catering.It is interesting that the food is always given an extra dash of seasoning and salt, as food tastes different while on air.
“When passengers are 30,000 ft up in the air, the pressure changes their body. Their sense of smell and taste buds are different,” SriLankan Catering Executive Chef Anthony Gibson said.HygieneOther than using blast freezers to control temperature and prevent the cultivation of bacteria and other contaminants, the raw materials are thoroughly cleaned in food-safe solutions.The facility has been awarded the ISO 9001:2008, ISO2200,2005, ISO 14001:2004 and HACCP certifications for quality and safety.The staff has to wear special outer garments from head to toe, not just to protect the food but also themselves from hazards such as broken glass wear. Fourteen (14) random meals from each flight are tested for standards and cleanliness by the in-house laboratories as well.
The facility has to clean the used trolleys, cutlery and crockery that are delivered by arriving flights, and converting the waste food into animal feed In addition it also has a laundry service that cleans and prepares the used blankets, napkins and towels of each airline. 4,500 kg of garments; nearly 14,000 blankets and 6,000 napkins are processed through the laundry daily. Despite the tall asking order, the operation has always managed to keep its head above the water.“I’m proud to say that we have always performed in terms of hygiene, cleanliness and quality. Our clients are always happy with us,” Gibson spoke of the international carriers which use SriLankan Catering services conducting audits every 6 months, and also dropping in for surprise checks.Business
Seventy per cent of SriLankan Catering’s meals are supplied to SriLankan Airlines; the parent company “All meals of SriLankan out of the country are made here. Even for 1 hour flights we serve a hot meal, compared to European and American airlines which only serve a snack,” SriLankan Airlines Head of Services Delivery Chanaka Olagama said.SriLankan Catering Limited CEO Sarath Fernando meanwhile said that his company always attempts to give a little bit more, in terms of both quality and quantity for the clients and the passengers.
“This (SriLankan) is the only airline in the world to have lobster and smoked salmon in a starter. It is also the only airline to have 5 meal choices for business class and 4 choices for economy class,” he said.Mihin Lanka and 10 other foreign carriers also avail themselves of its services, while some airlines also demand meals on an ad hoc basis, during times of strain on their production facilities back home.With the upcoming tourist peak season, the facility will be looking at catering nearly 20,000 meals a day due to the influx of charter flights to which it also caters.
Looking back 5 years, the facility was only managing to cater around 5,000 meals a day. The arrival of Gibson at that crucial juncture and the increased flight volumes seems to have helped the facility grow.“But I can’t take the credit. It’s a team effort,” Gibson was especially proud of his two Sous Chefs whom are both Sri Lankan.The business process of the organization is quite lengthy. It goes through a 3 month planning process, with a client airline bringing a proposal to SriLankan Catering.
The Executive Chef then chooses what can and can’t be produced depending on rates, seasonality, capacity and expertise present. He then creates a menu and alternatives, which are priced and the clients are given sample presentations and tasting of them. After the customers finalize on the menu or any alternatives, 3 to 4 weeks are taken to plan and source raw materials before the first production is done.New menus are designed for each airline quarterly, but SriLankan Catering changes or adds to the menu constantly based on client and passenger feedback.This facility was built in 2005, and could cater for expected demands for another 10 years according to Ullandupitiya.
Meanwhile, a new production kitchen for the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is also in planning to be completed by June to cater 2,000 meals a day.Currently nearly 1,000 people are employed by SriLankan Catering at their production kitchen and various restaurants and outlets at BIA and in Colombo.