Food Science in large scale catering – Netflix’ Mega Food

Making food in a factory and making food at home are two very different and unique disciplines. The advantage of making food at home is that you’ll only do it for a few people. Food made in a factory is for a lot of people, but isn’t eaten immediately, so you’re a bit more flexible with regards to your timings.

When you combine the two: immediate consumption + large amounts of food, you end up at Mega Food, a show hosted on Netflix. They take a look behind the scenes of some huge food operations and it truly is fascinating. Whether it’s making daily breakfast and dinner on a cruise ship for thousands of people or preparing food for airplane passengers.

The time scales are short, the amounts are huge and the logistics are a true challenge. In all cases, you have to do everything fast, good and, most importantly, safe, nobody wants passengers on a cruise ship or airplane to become sick.

It’s actually a great way to see food science from the blog here come to life, so we’ve extracted a few highlights.

Banana storage

You have probably never though about how to buy and store bananas for a cruise ship. For a one week cruise though, there have to be hundreds of bananas on board of the ship when it leaves the first harbour. In order for those bananas to last until the end of the week, they are brought in at different degrees of ripeness.

Bananas ripen quite quickly and once they’re ripening they produce ethylene. This ethylene then stimulates ripening of other bananas, but it can also induce ripening of other fruits and vegetables! Moreover, bananas shouldn’t be stored in the fridge, nor should they be stored too warm. That’s why the cruise ship in Mega Food actually has a separate storage space for bananas!

In that storage space there are three different degrees of ripeness of bananas on board at the start of the cruise. There are overripe bananas (which are brown already), good for making a smoothie. Then they have ripe bananas, ready to be eaten as a snack. Last but not least, they have green bananas. Thanks to the optimal storage conditions for these bananas they will be ripe by the end of the journey. It’s a great combination of culinary understanding and food science that come together.

sliced banana with yoghurt
Cruise ship passengers are expecting a perfectly ripe banana!

Pre-cooking airplane food

Have you ever wondered what flight attendants still have to do when preparing your airplane meal? If it’s an economy meal, their main job is re-heating the food and bringing it to you. The food is actually heated in special airplane ovens. These ovens really are designed to heat food, not to cook or brown the food, or to develop any flavour. Higher temperatures are required to getting that browning reaction, the Maillard reaction, going.

That means that all the flavour development, browning, etc. all has to be done on forehand, in the kitchens on the ground. This is a 24/7 operation and food is cooked non-stop. Most of the food isn’t cooked through completely. Since the flight attendants will re-heat the food again, it is prepared in such a way that the additional heat in the airplane cooks the food properly. Steaks for instance are browned nicely but not completely cooked through, that is done in the airplane oven. This way, the quality of the food will be as good as it’s going to get.

Did you know that the kitchens on the ground also have some airplane ovens? They can then use these to test new food developments so they know how the food turns out!

Bakery factory in a theme park

The show travels to Seaworld Orlando where they show the kitchen and food operations required to keep the park going. It’s enormous and there are a lot of things going on and a tremendous amount of food is served every day. One of the most fascinating areas is the bakery. This is a 24-hour bakery that literally is a small, continuous factory baking bread from scratch.

24 hours a day, 7 days a week breads are shaped an cookies are baked. Shaping the bread isn’t done by hand, instead, there’s a machine that shapes every bread roll in a perfect shape, very similar to the one used in Boudin bakery that we visited.

If you’ve baked bread and cakes at home your oven might not be heated evenly which results in one side baking faster than the other. Seaworld has more advanced commercial oven in which the baked goods are rotated to ensure even baking. It truly is a smooth operation.

When you’re watching the show, look out for the whipped cream mixer. Your small kitchen size stand mixer looks ridiculously small compared to their mixer. Nevertheless, it still somewhat looks like your kitchen mixer. The process has been scaled up, but still is essentially the same.

100-whole-wheat-bread-brilliant-bread
Mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping, proofing, baking; making bread every day is a huge undertaking.

Developing airplane food

Have you also heard that people tend to order a lot more tomato juice in an airplane, then on the ground? This is because your senses work different when up in the air. For one thing the air in an airplane is drier, which makes it harder to taste food properly. But there’s more, you’re all sitting quite closely together in an airplane in a small space with recirculating air. Recipe and food developers have to take all of this into account when developing meals for airplanes.

In such a small, busy space, you want to avoid any strong smelling foods. Imagine the smell of a strong blue cheese in an airplane. Some might like it, but others might start feeling sick, simply because of the smell.

To compensate for the lack of taste capabilities, airplane foods have to be spiced up. Extra spices, salt, etc. are generally added to ensure people still like it.

A fact to consider as well is that it should be well portionable. You want to make sure that everyone gets the same amount of food, you wouldn’t want to neighbour to get a lot more or less food than you have.

Last but not least, the food should be re-heatable! Some foods simply don’t lend themselves well for this, an example that was given is a very delicate fish for instance.

Smoking food during the night

If there are thousands of people who want to eat your barbecue every day, you’ve got to be well prepared. That’s why in Seaworld the smoking of the big pieces of meat starts in the middle of the night, to ensure they are ready for the next day. They have large smoking units in which the meat rotates. A separate chamber on the side contains the wood (they use hickory and oak, apparently, they give a great flavour) that forms the smoke to smoke the meat.

A large piece of meat like a brisket takes up to 10 hours to smoke and develop all those characteristic flavours!

Allergen management

When you produce a food in a factory you will have to place a label on the food. That label will have to state whether there are any allergens in the food. Allergens are components of a food that people can be allergic for, for instance milk, soy or wheat.

For these large scale operations management of allergens is a main challenge. If someone is really allergic, you don’t want there to be any trace of that allergen in their food. Airplane food production has a separate space where they make these types of meals. For a company like seaworld, they have to know which allergens sit in which dish so they can advise people accordingly. It’s a great challenge to keep these kinds of systems up and running.

Further reading/watching

At the time of writing (summer-2018) you can watch the show Mega Food on Netflix. My personal favorites are the shows on airplane food, feeding a cruise ship and Seaworld Orlando (these are shows 4, 5 and 6). It is definitely worthwhile a watch if you’d like to see how scaling up from your kitchen to these mega operations looks like. There’s a lot of fascinating logistics involved that we didn’t discuss here as well as training of all of those people that serve the food.

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