Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cooking for thousands in Dubai

Here in Dubai, it's been one interesting day after another.

Yesterday, I went over to the Emirates catering facility right by the airport to see for myself exactly what it's like to prepare meals for thousands and thousands of airline passengers everyday. I'm always at the receiving end of the meals, so I thought it was high time I took a look at what my three-course meal tray looks like from the production end.

The Emirates catering facility is practically a city. And in this part of the world, where so many small states and countries exist side-by-side in the desert, it's really as big as some states. It's a mammoth building with a series of huge kitchens lined along corridors. There are separate kitchens for every course, from cold appetizers to dessert. There's also a dedicated kitchen for Arabic food and another for Indian food. Emirates is very proud of the fact that this is among the largest and yet most efficient facilities in the world.


There must be thousands of people working here -- and many of them are Filipinos, including the two sous chefs. Apparently I'm one of the first Filipinos to ever visit this facility, and so there was a bit of excitement about having kababayan visitors in the building. One of the sous chef has been in Dubai for 21 years and calls this home. He diligently worked his way up through the ranks and now proudly holds the title of sous chef. He was the one who told me he'd never seen a Filipino visitor here before.

Whenever we saw Filipino workers, they smiled happily at us -- just like in this photo of some merry ladies in the economy class meal production line. A number of them said that they missed the Philippines, but it was also hard to feel sad when there were so many Filipinos around.


In spite of the volumes of people and food, and the nonstop frenetic activity, the Emirates catering facility is spotlessly clean and the most rigorous standards of cleanliness are observed. Just to get into this place, I had to fill out a medical questionnaire, don a white coat over my clothes that made me look like a doctor (or rather, like a doctor in a mental hospital, with the ubiquitous white coat, someone in my group quipped), and put my hair into a bun and a hairnet.


Because Emirates is one of the largest airlines in the world and Dubai is among the busiest travel hubs, the Emirates catering facility is probably the busiest in the world. Over 6000 people work here and they produce and deliver at least 90,000 meals a day. It's terribly serious business and lots of pressure on everyone as delays are simply not acceptable.

One of the senior Filipina supervisors here said to me, with pride in her voice: "We can handle absolutely any and all pressure." I was also told that last week they just set a record for the highest volume of meals produced in a day.


It was so interesting to see the assembly lines for the different courses, and of course to see the differences in the assembly lines for economy, business and first class. Economy class is literally a manufacturing assembly line with an entire row of employees seated in a line and putting together an economy class tray step-by-step. Meanwhile, first and business class have their own more personalized production stations, and there are highly-trained and dedicated personnel to oversee the completion of each tray.


The equipment they used here at the Emirates catering facility were also huge. I spotted one large cauldron overflowing with pieces of lamb in a stew, and was told that this was going to be good for the Indian main courses of 500 people. In another kitchen, too, I saw rows upon rows of very long tables filled with tiny white plates containing olives. They looked like domino pieces.

Of course, all this inspection of literally thousands of trays of food made me very hungry. I was ravenous by the time I got to lunch, which was with a hotel executive from Movenpick Hotels, who treated us to a wonderful Asian meal at the Wok Inn restaurant of the Movenpick Deira Hotel. I wasn't expecting much, frankly, but the food was excellent and I think I had two orders of freshly-made tempura practically by myself.

Good night from wonderful Dubai.



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