Long-haul flights have become delightful getaways for Air France’s Business Class passengers, especially with Chef Julien Royer’s exclusive culinary creations for the airline’s daily Singapore-to-Paris flights

SINGAPORE (June 17): "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to my restaurant,” announces Chef Julien Royer jovially over the public announcement system. Royer is not referring to Odette — the two Michelin-starred restaurant that he co-owns with the Lo & Behold Group at the National Gallery Singapore — but to the Air France Boeing 777-300ER aircraft that has just taken off from Singapore on a Tuesday night.

The 36-year-old Frenchman’s spirited introduction is made only partially in jest. It is the evening of April 9, and passengers are being treated to a new inflight dining menu and experience that essentially transforms the aircraft cabin into, well, Royer’s restaurant.

The Auvergne-born chef was on Air France’s Paris-bound Flight AF 257 as part of a one-night event for the “Oh my Chef!” series — the airline’s signature initiative that invites celebrated chefs aboard to share their menu and interact with passengers. For the next two years starting from April 2019, Royer will present a total of 12 main dishes exclusive to Air France’s daily 13-hour flight from Singapore to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Six dishes were created by Royer for the Business Class menu, and another six that use more premium ingredients for First Class, termed by Air France as La Première. Each dish will be served on a monthly rotation basis twice a year until 2020.

“I hope people will appreciate all the effort that we put into these dishes, as well as their flavours. When you’re thousands of feet in the air, it’s important to have meals that are not complicated, that are comforting and just taste really good. I believe we didn’t go over the limit in being too creative or too crazy in terms of the dishes and their flavours. We tried to stick to the rustic basics of French cooking, with our [Odette’s] twist, but ultimately still [produce] something delicious and simple,” says Royer during an exclusive interview with Options in Odette’s private dining room days before the April 9 flight.

Odette recently made waves when it bagged the No 1 spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list published by William Reed.

“We were very emotional about [the award] because it’s been a fantastic ride for us since we opened Odette in 2015. It’s been a lot of hard work, but most of all, it is due to team work. There are more than 30 people working in this restaurant, and they are the ones who are running this show — it’s not a one-man show. It’s an amazing feeling to receive so many kind words from our guests and suppliers, that they are so proud of us. In a way, we are giving back to Singapore, and I am happy to make Singapore proud,” he adds. Royer has been living and working here for more than a decade and recently obtained Singapore permanent resident status.

Seats in Air France’s Business Class cabins, with their 1-2-1 layout, offer direct aisle access to every passenger

Soaring to new heights

It is, however, pure coincidence that Air France’s Singapore-to-Paris flights are now dishing up inflight meals by the chef-owner of Asia’s top restaurant for 2019. Royer says this project has been nearly a year in the making — long before the prestigious title was bestowed on his restaurant.

“Air France is a symbol of France itself [being the French flag carrier], so when they offered me this opportunity in 2018, of course I said ‘yes’. The airline has been working with many Michelin-starred chefs from around the world for many years, so I was very thankful and happy when Nicolas proposed this collaboration,” he recalls. Royer is referring to the carrier’s country manager for Air France-KLM Singapore, Nicolas Ricard. It was Ricard who first pitched the idea to him during a special four-hands dinner event last year.

While the Air France x Julien Royer collaboration marks the airline’s inaugural partnership with a Michelin-starred chef in Singapore, it is also Royer’s first attempt to design a menu for inflight consumption. The entire process took several months to plan and execute with Singapore’s airline gateway services provider SATS. Serving inflight meals is a whole different ballgame from all of his years of working in the kitchens of on-ground restaurants, explains the chef, as one typically loses much of his or her ability to taste sweetness or saltiness up in the air, owing to high altitude and pressure as well as the lack of humidity.

“We had to play a lot more with the acidity and salt content for this menu, as food tastes very different while flying than when it does on the ground. We also had to choose recipes that are achievable while also paying attention to the cuts or produce used. For example, I cannot serve something that easily becomes dry after being reheated. The SOPs (standard operating procedures) for preparing inflight meals are very different [from those for a restaurant kitchen]. For the meat, it has to have a certain fat content to ensure that it is still tender and delicious after being reheated and served on board,” notes Royer.

According to the chef, this last point is best exemplified in one of his creations for the Business Class menu. “We’ll serve a beef cheek that has been braised for a very, very long time. The result is so soft that you can eat it with a spoon,” he declares, referring to his highlight dish for the Business Class’ July 2019/January 2020 menu.

Braised beef cheek in red wine sauce, celeriac mousseline and wholegrain mustard is available as the main course on Air France’s flights from Singapore to Paris in July 2019/January 2020

Fine dining in the sky

With Royer’s words in mind, my decision is almost immediate after spotting it among the three Oh my Chef! menu options during the flight. The lusciously gelatinous beef cheek was indeed spoon-tender as Royer had said. It came plated beautifully and served together with separate portions of cheeses, appetisers and salads. Even at altitude, it hardly felt like my taste receptors were functioning any differently. The accompanying red wine sauce, smoked potato puree, pickled onion and celeriac mousseline produced a tangy, saliva-inducing sensation that made the slab of beef cheek all the more enjoyable. It was also topped with pearls of wholegrain mustard that immediately reminded me of caviar — an association that perhaps comes naturally after starting off the journey with several glasses of Taittinger Brut Réserve.

Out of curiosity, I had made a pact with the passenger seated in front of me to swap our choices of mains after finishing about half of our own. My newfound foodie friend chose the Grilled Scallops, Carrot Mousseline and Saffron Nage meant for the April/October 2019 rotation. Although the dish had gone cold by the time I tried it, the nicely charred scallop together with the carrot mousseline’s sweetness certainly left an impression as deep as the grill marks on each scallop’s surface.

While champagne is served bottomless throughout the entire flight, Air France sommelier Paolo Basso has come up with other ideas for the food and wine pairing experience. For the Oh my Chef! menu, Basso recommended a 2016 Joseph Mellot Sauvignon from the Loire Valley and a Saint-Véran Burgundy Chardonnay from the same year to go with the seafood and cheese dishes, respectively. A spicy Syrah from the Northern Rhône, a Crozes-Hermitage Grand Classique 2017, comes in as the interlude before the aromatic and intense Le Relais De Durfort-Vivens Margaux 2015 debuts for the meat dishes.

The inflight meal service is provided with just as much professionalism as one would expect at a fine dining restaurant as my broad, adjustable seat-integrated desk is temporarily transformed into a private table for one with the use of an extra napkin as the tablecloth. Each bottle is presented label-first and introduced before it is poured, while attendants regularly make their way up and down the cabin’s aisles offering baskets of warm bread to enjoy with individual mini jars of balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil.

Home indulgences

Despite reclining my seat into a full flat bed using the built-in control buttons, the aim is to stay awake for at least a few more hours so that I may browse through the 1,200 hours of programming on demand. As Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns begins playing on the fold-out, 16in HD touchscreen before me, I retrieve my phone from my personal stowage compartment to send out live updates and photos. “It’s like a staycation at a luxury capsule hotel with personal butler service,” I tell friends using WhatsApp, although my text-bragging is met with absolute silence at the time, considering it is already past 2am in Singapore.

The complimentary connectivity service comes as part of Air France’s new inflight WiFi offer called Air France Connect, which provides all customers with a free “Message” pass to access their messaging and social media apps as if they never left home. For those who wish to work or access their own entertainment subscriptions using a stable high-speed internet connection, two other passes are available at a fee.

Passengers can store their belongings in a personal compartment, which comes with a pair of noise-reduction headphones and a mirror

Curled up under a lightweight duvet with a plush feather pillow under my head — both provided by Air France on top of an amenity kit filled with Clarins skincare products and other nifty travel necessities — I eventually slip into deep, dreamless sleep for the next eight hours or so until it is time for breakfast and, shortly after, landing. The latter was something I was not exactly looking forward to as I had already grown fiercely attached to my ultra-cushy airplane seat and the perks that came with it.

Days after returning to Singapore, it is time for me to depart from Changi Airport again, this time on another airline carrier for a personal trip and as an economy class passenger. Over the three-hour flight to Hong Kong, I grow painfully aware of having to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other passengers, how scratchy the seat fabric feels against my skin and, most of all, airplane food, which I never once minded, but now find unappetising and underwhelming, to say the least.

And that is when I realise how flying Business Class with Air France has officially ruined air travel for me, and possibly for life. Not only did it transport me over 6,000 miles to Paris, but also to an entirely different world — one that any ordinary traveller would be reluctant to return from.