Luke Mangan

Chef Luke Mangan and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson with Virgin Australia crew. Image: Nikki To

APEX Insight: Luke Mangan, the chef responsible for feeding Virgin Australia’s business-class passengers, discusses the ingredients for culinary success in the air, from a Sydney warehouse test kitchen with two airline ovens to wine that’s specifically designed to be sipped in the air.

When top Australian chef Luke Mangan met Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines at the turn of the 21st century, it was the beginning of a friendship that’s still going strong almost 20 years later. “I met Richard Branson in about 2001 in Sydney,” Mangan recalls in a chat during the recent Australian Tourism Summit held in Pasadena, California. “Soon after that [in 2003], we launched the business-class food on the Sydney to London route on Virgin Atlantic and then we launched the business-class food on Virgin America as well. Then when John Borgetti came on board in Sydney, he asked me to do the food for Virgin Australia. So I’ve been partnered with Virgin Australia for seven or eight years now.”

Luka Magnan and Richard Branson

Luke Mangan has been partnered with Virgin Australia for seven or eight years. Image: Nikki To

Chef Mangan, an Australian who began his career working in London under Michel Roux, the three-star Michelin chef at The Waterside Inn, today owns 19 restaurants, including Mojo by Luke Mangan and the glass brasserie in Sydney, Salt in Tokyo and five Salt Grill eateries aboard P&O Cruises ships. But it is his collaboration in the sky with Virgin Australia that is his obsession.”I devote a lot of time to Virgin Australia’s food,” Mangan says. “We want to take restaurant quality food everywhere it can go. If we have restaurant quality food in the air – and Virgin Australia has just won Best Business Class, and that’s contributed – that’s a good thing.”

Along with his two top chefs, Martin Stacey and Matt Morgan, who work exclusively on the Virgin Australia menus, Mangan is always looking to upgrade the dining experience in both domestic and short-haul business class, as well as in “The Business,” the airline’s upper class on long-haul flights. “We keep it fresh by changing the menus every three months on board. We have a test kitchen in my warehouse in Sydney. It’s a kitchen where we have two airline ovens and we have two chefs working constantly on dishes, creating and making sure that they are going to work in the air, making sure they are going to cook well in those airplane ovens,” he explains.

Virgin Australia business-class meals

“You lose about 30 percent of your taste buds in the air. So you’ve got to look for foods – fish for example – with a high oil content.” – Luke Mangan, Virgin Australia’s business-class chef. Image via Virgin Australia

Mangan’s secret to success in the air is all about tweaking to passengers’ taste buds, which actually change in flight. “You lose about 30 percent of your taste buds in the air,” he says. “So you’ve got to look for foods – fish for example – with a high oil content. So barramundi works really well, salmon, things like that. With meats, you’re always looking for things that are going to braise well. So meats with fat through them as well, which helps to keep them tender. A loin of venison ain’t going to work because it’s going to dry out.”

Mangan and his team also choose the wines served in “The Business” on Virgin Australia. On March 1, Virgin Australia and Barossa Valley winery St. Hallett announced the release of a specially blended 2016 Shiraz, specifically designed to be sipped in air. Known as “The Duo,” the wine is believed to be the first of its kind.