Down to Earth Food at the Royal Orchid Dining Experience

Down to Earth Food at the Royal Orchid Dining Experience

Thai Airways brings its signature dishes to passengers on the ground.

After months of travel restrictions due to on-going health concerns, frustrated travellers miss the excitement of airports and jetting off to discover a new destination. But the days of overseas holidays or spur-of-the-moment city breaks are still a long way away for most of us. 

With all the pent-up wanderlust one thing that isn't often heard is a yearning for in-flight meals. Airplane food often conjures up images of microwaved pizza and instant noodles eaten more out of necessity and boredom than gastronomic pleasure.

Fortunately some airlines still pride themselves on their food and their service. When most of its flights were suspended in March of this year, Thai Airways, the national carrier of Thailand, faced the dilemma of keeping staff occupied and generating some much needed revenue. The airline had been producing a staggering 80,000 meals a day for its own planes and other airlines out of its central kitchen in Bangkok's primary hub at Suvarnabhumi Airport, the biggest kitchen in Thailand. It found itself reduced to making 200 platters on a good day, mostly for cargo plane crews that were the only flights still regularly going through the airport. The company needed a way to use those resources and the idea to reproduce the experience of on-board dining for its customers on the ground was born.

Decommissioned seats and engine parts at the Royal Orchid Dining Experience. Photo: Thai Airways

But the airline was plagued with financial troubles even before Covid. Varangkana Leurojvong, Managing Director of Thai's catering department was tasked with the challenge of creating an inviting space with virtually no budget. The staff canteen at the company headquarters in Viphavadi Road in Bangkok proved to be the perfect location. She mobilised other departments of the airline, including technical, operational and ground staff that provided engine parts to make glass-topped tables and seats from decommissioned planes. Air stairs were rolled up to the restaurant's entrance for “boarding”. Staff pitched in for everything from painting the walls to moving stock.

The result is the Royal Orchid Dining Experience. “We want to bring in-flight service, the crew greeting you, air hostesses and stewards to serve you,” Leurojvong says. And when the doors open at the top of the rolling stairs, there they are, the captain and cabin crew in their familiar livery, palms joined together in a wai, the traditional Thai greeting. “Passengers” can take the time to snap a selfie without fear of blocking the aisle.

A Thai Airways favourite: Mango Cheesecake. Photo: Thai Airways

Support from the public was massive. “They already had a taste for our food,” says the MD. When they first opened, people queued for two or three hours to sample dishes they remembered from their travels. (Now a booking system for the set menus has eased the pressure, but a seat for the set menus must be booked three days in advance and some self-service items sell out fast every day.) 

Sweet, tangy, savoury pad thai, the fried rice noodle dish that is the national dish of Thailand, flew out of the woks. Guests ordered creamy spaghetti carbonara and Caesar salad topped with smoked salmon or bacon and the airline's own distinctive dressing (that can also be purchased to take home). Patongko, the Thai version of Chinese fried crullers that the carrier serves shorter, chubbier and fluffier than the traditional bread sticks with a side of pandan or taro dips, attracts huge crowds here and when pop-ups appear in malls and other venues around town.

Self-service Economy Class seating. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

Guests have a choice of three “classes”. Most opt for grab-and-go snacks and the cafeteria-style meals of Economy. The selection reflects the airline's destinations, with Chinese (recently barbecued pork), Middle Eastern (sayadieh fish), Japanese (tonkatsu curry), Indian (lamb palak) and of course a variety of Thai meals all on offer. The menu changes every two weeks and is available to eat in or for takeaway.

Bakery items like brioche and burnt cheesecake are hits, as well as traditional Thai desserts like tako, jelly cups topped with coconut cream or kanom sai sai, soft chewy rice cakes packed full of toasted coconut and palm sugar. Thai's versions are supersized, surprisingly light and not overly sweet.

Related: Thailand Food Guide

 

Foie Gras Champagne and Two Pepper Terrine, from the First Class menu. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

In Business (which sadly like First Class is currently served in standard economy seats, though management is looking at ways to install business class pods), the set menu is made up of a starter, main and dessert, while the five-course First Class menu adds a second starter and a soup. Both menus highlight premium ingredients: terrines of unctuous foie gras, dollops of caviar, and tender legs of lamb figure prominently. Butterfly pea tea, tamarind juice and other traditional Thai refreshments as well as tea and coffee are included. A note to fans of the in-flight free-flow drinks trolley: wine and spirits are not served.

The Business Class menu is served at “window seats”. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

Business class passengers sit in “window seats”, actually tables located closer to the floor-to-ceiling windows, but the crème de la crème of flying Thai is the trademark First Class service, offered in the exclusive mezzanine (previously the VIP lounge) that overlooks the main floor. In-flight purser Khun Bee greets her guests with a gracious balance of warmth and attention that Thai passengers have come to expect. When prompted, she admits that she was initially apprehensive about serving on the ground. She needn't have been. “Customers are so happy to see us and we are so happy to see them,” she says. Support from the staff behind the scenes means she has more time to devote personal attention to her guests.

 

Deconstructed Black Forest Cake. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

Thai's executive chef Pierre-André Hauss who oversees all the kitchen operations concurs. “It's good for our staff and our customers,” he says, as he stops to chat with every table like the chef of a fine-dining restaurant, something he obviously never could do before. “It was a shame when we couldn't serve our customers during the lockdown,” he says. 

There are other advantages to having operations on the ground: food doesn't have to be pre-cooked and frozen and Chef Pierre-André can pay attention to details like presentation and plating. An example: the deconstructed black forest cake with clouds of whipped cream crowned with chocolate curls.  

Stir-Fried Salt and Chili Lobster from the First Class menu. Photo: Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

The room is abuzz with passengers milling around making their choices. Live music, also performed by uniformed crew, adds to the festive atmosphere. Occasionally a dish misses the mark (a lobster tail was tasty but overcooked) but it almost doesn't matter. Good humour prevails and for a few moments at least the nostalgia for Thai's signature smooth-as-silk service leaves the passenger with a warm glow. In this case, it's really as much about the journey as the destination. 

The Royal Orchid Dining Experience is open daily from 7:30 am for breakfast items and from 9 am for all meals until 2 pm daily. Plans are afoot to open for dinner on weekends. Follow the Thai Airways Facebook page for updates. 

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