Off Their Hostess Trolley – SWISS Air Collaborates On Michelin-starred Inflight Meals
SWISS, the world’s most refined and assiduous airline have put a Michelin chef to work on their catering. Thomas Patterson has the tedious task of sampling (and a light and a whistle for attracting attention).
Ah, the inflight meal – is there anything more unappetising than the tinfoil-topped airline dinner, with its mystery meat served in a gelatinous sauce, alongside string beans floating in a dewy puddle, accompanied by a quarter of off-colour tomato astride a leaf of wilting lettuce? Even Business Class and beyond often provide bread rolls of industrial insulate consistency and carrot cake of the concrete persuasion, food so lethal it would have Alain Ducasse running for the emergency exit, parachute in hand.
Thank the culinary gods then for airline SWISS, who have decided to elevate the onboard meal to something both edible and artful with its “SWISS Taste of Switzerland” programme. Working alongside the top chefs of Switzerland, SWISS has been offering gourmet-level meals for its First and Business passengers on inter-continental flights, and the man behind the current menu is Marcus G. Lindner, the Michelin-starred executive chef of the extraordinary The Alpina Gstaad hotel within the chichi ski-resort.
Thanks to Lindner’s beautifully crafted menu, no longer must travellers suffer the indignity of vinegary wine and grey beef in gloop, those hoary staples of inflight cuisine now substituted for an impressive selection of Swiss-inflected dishes. Meals on offer in Business Class include Tafelspitz beef carpaccio with a barley terrine and lamb’s lettuce mousse, Veal ragout with arugula spätzle, and pikeperch with cider compote – all dishes I’m fairly certain aren’t on offer on equivalent airlines, unless Tafelspitz beef carpaccio became an in-flight staple whilst I was too busy stuffing myself with Toblerone to notice.
First class meanwhile luxuriates in fillet of Balik salmon (a delicacy of the Imperial Russian aristocracy), lobster medallions, and air-dried beef specialties from the canton of Bern including Frenchelwurst, Dure bi Rot and Rariwar by Jumi – and try saying that when drunk, which you will be after you’ve tried SWISS’s Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle, the Chablis 1er Cru Les Vailons 2012 and the 2014 Spiezer Blauburgunder (“gesundheit”).
Vegetarian options in both classes are designed by the Hilti vegetarian restaurant in Zurich (opened in 1898, making it the first vegetarian restaurant in the world) and include a Malaysian vegetable rendang and a Kashmiri vegetable curry – almost enough to make me swap my carpaccio and corn-fed chicken breasts for something a little less carnivorous. Almost.
Alas, you can’t fly SWISS directly into Gstaad – the village only has a small airstrip for private jets – so if you want to try Lindner’s extraordinary food as cooked by the man himself, it’s a winding drive through the mountains or a three-hour rail journey from Zurich in which you jump from train to smaller train until you’re chugging through tiny alpine villages in a dinky carriage, the mountains towering over you on both sides.
Due to strict planning laws, Gstaad itself remains relatively untouched, a fairytale village of wooden chalets and cobbled streets – albeit one that boasts Julie Andrews, Bernie Ecclestone and Johnny Hallyday as residents and one that’s lined with branches of Gucci, Prada and Chanel (think of it as Beverly Hills gone alpine and you’re nearly there). Skiing remains the village’s primary winter draw, but a hot air balloon festival, summer volleyball tournament and a classical music festival founded by Sir Yehudi Menuhin draw in tourists year round.
And there, towering over the village like some mighty alcázar gone glam is The Alpina Gstaad itself, a magnificent light-strewn, wooden-clad, lavishly-turreted, snow-covered colossus. Although the hotel only opened in 2012, it feels more like a glamorous grand dame than a brash newcomer – a grand dame with looks that only the deepest pockets and finest surgeons could provide.
Entrance to the hotel comes via an underground driveway straight out of a Bond villain’s lair, and the interior is no less full of surprises. A reception area decked out in sleek woods leads to a sweeping staircase beneath an antique ceiling dating from 1780 that takes one up to an expansive bar decked out in world-class contemporary art (a Tracey Emin here, an Alex Katz there). Indeed, art is everywhere in The Alpina Gstaad, both modern works and swathes of découpage, a traditional form of Swiss folk-art, examples of which line every corridor.
Amenities are as luxurious as one would expect, and include a cigar room with humidor, a private cinema, an indoor and outdoor pool, and the Six Senses Spa (either a “holistic destination spa informed by Asian Wellness Traditions” that “draws upon the energy of the Alps” according to the spa brochure’s blurb, or just a bloody good place for a schvitz and a slap about by a highly trained masseuse).
There are 56 bedrooms of differing sizes but all are majestic, decked out in luxuriant fabrics and repurposed Swiss antiques. My own extravagantly sized suite featured a king sized bed, fireplace, sofa aside a Bang & Olufsen TV bigger than most cinema screens, a bathroom mirror with a built-in television ideal for watching episodes of Heidi in the bath, and a balcony overlooked by the mountains, perfect for enjoying a Kirsch as the snow falls all around. If that’s not enough, however, a two-storey private suite atop the hotel with personal gym, spa and sauna offers the ultimate escape for the oligarch or international pop star in your life.
Then of course, there’s Chef Lindner’s food, the whole reason SWISS led me to The Alpina Gstaad in the first place. Lindner presides over three different restaurants inside the hotel. First is his Sommet gourmet restaurant, which offers his contemporary take on Swiss cuisine, and from which the SWISS airline menu mostly takes it cue; second is MEGU, an exceptional sushi restaurant (sister to the now defunct MEGU in Manhattan); and third is his Swiss Stübli, a traditional restaurant offering a swank take on the classic fondue (i.e. it’s fondue with added truffle oil). Skiing is of course on the cards to work off the calories all this fine dining adds – but those wily Swiss have built fondue stations atop the mountains, so you can fork some bread into a cheesy liquid even when exercising.
Alas, my visit to The Alpina Gstaad was all too brief, two days that were as rich as a Swiss bank account and as magical as the village it bestrides. As I transferred from tiny carriage back to larger train on the first leg of my journey back, and as the alpine scenery receded into the distance, replaced by the modern metropolis of Zurich, at least I had one thought to comfort me – I’d still get to dine well whilst SWISS airlines carried me back home.