I’m starting 2011 looking back on all the great trips we’ve had the chance to go on over the last year. New Zealand, The Cook Islands, Rome, The Amalfi Coast, Paris, The Alps, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Diego and Toronto are some of the destinations we’ve had the chance to visit in 2010. Friends and acquaintances often ask how E and I manage to travel so much. Two answers: first, we don’t have kids (yet) and second, we are both freelancers. These are the two reasons why we have the egocentric freedom to do whatever we want to do, whenever we feel like it – within our means, of course. I’d say traveling has become a way of living for the last 4 years and we organize our lives around it. We’ve decided that we would make the most out of it while we’re young, healthy and relatively free instead of waiting to our old days to do so.
Having the chance to travel so much was the other reason why I decided to start my blog (besides my love of food). I thought writing about these trips would give us a new purpose and allow us to view the places we visit in a new light. Over the last year, my blog has grown significantly, and with it comes the usual questions: What is the focus of my blog? How could I make it even better? Last week, as I wandered around the gourmet shops of New York City (my first 2011 travel destination) I thought that focusing my blog even more precisely on trips and exotic foods was the answer. My blog was always supposed to be just that (hence the title “Delicious Discoveries, Abroad or at Home”), but somewhere along the line I also published day-to-day recipes that were not linked to any of my travels. Countless bloggers I admire create and reinvent recipes, write wonderfully and take perfect pictures; I figured out that this isn’t my strength. Taking a dish from another cuisine, bringing it back home, figuring out how to recreate it and explain how to do so: that’s what I love and what I will strive to do throughout 2011. I will also keep on sharing my travel discoveries as well as writing book and restaurant reviews – topics I think are closely linked to my main focus on the blog.
So I thought I would start the year off by sharing the experience I had to travel in first class last month (or executive, or business, however you want to call it). If you’re like me, you’ve always wondered what can possibly be happen behind those opaque curtains to justify such a steep price difference between the economy class and the front of the plane. I mean, we all go from point A to point B. When travelling to international destinations, we all get served a meal or two. Of course there’s the legroom (and the horizontal beds), but are a couple more hours of sleep really worth several thousands of dollars? I’ll stay in economy class and sleep more tomorrow, thank you.
Last fall, because of all our travels (especially the trip to New Zealand), we were awarded an “Elite” status by Air Canada. We do travel with AC most often because it’s the airline that serves Quebec City the best. This advantage comes with many perks like priority check in, priority security lanes (in select airports), access to the lounges and priority boardings. It also came with certificates that we could use to be upgraded to first class. Our status allowed us to request an upgrade only 4 days before departure, so I scheduled to do so before we left to Paris and… surprise! It worked! We were excited like kids before this trip. We would finally find out what’s first class like, what do they get to eat exactly and why is it always so messy when we pass through it to get off the plane?
We had one of those planes with the “pod-seats” that are placed along the aisles in a 45 degree angle so as to allow sleeping in a completely horizontal position. It’s more difficult to chat with your loved one but more comfortable. So I happily settled in and waited for the experience to unfold. Here’s how it went.
- Greeting cocktail – sparkling wine or orange juice.
- Flight attendant comes and takes our dinner order from a choice of 4 different main courses. Appetizer, salad, cheeses and dessert will also be served.
- Airplane take-off.
- Flight director comes to each person to hand out a duty-free order form and say “It’s a pleasure to have you on board. If I can do anything for you during the flight, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
- Flight attendant takes out table trays and lays a pristine white cotton napkin over each.
- Nut mix and first drinks service. I chose Champagne.
- Appetizer, salad, cheeses and dessert services follow. Each service is accompanied by drinks – choice of beer, Champagne, two white wines, two reds, Port, as well as cocktails and liquors. They serve really tall glasses.
- Dinner’s over, time for a nap. Ambient lights are closed. I play around with the different seat buttons and then transformed my seat into a bed. Sleep for about 3 hours.
- Woken up by lights and attendants walking up and down the aisles to distribute a continental breakfast. It’s a bit quick – I wish I had slept more but I take it anyway.
Considering the flight from Montreal to Paris is about 6 hours long, it goes pretty quickly. The many courses of dinner take some time to be served and eaten, so by the time service is over, two good hours have passed. Since they serve breakfast a little more than an hour before arrival, it leaves just 3 hours to sleep. This is the one time I wish I had been in a longer flight!
Here’s what I ate and what it looked like. This is the transcription from the menu:
Snack: Nuts and Champagne
My opinion: Great way to start the flight, especially because the Champagne was a real one, Drappier Carte d’Or Brut from Reims, France.
Appetizer: Smoked Salmon with Cream Cheese, Capers, Onions, Cucumbers, Caper Berries and Pumpernickel Bread
My opinion: Good mix of textures. Good quality of smoked salmon. So overall, good.
Salad: Organic Field Greens, Grape Tomatoes and Parmesan served with Balsamic Vinaigrette
My opinion: A really basic salad with bottled dressing, but the shaved parmesan was the real thing.
Main Course: Seasoned Black Cod presented with Saffron Potatoes, Green Beans and Braised Leeks
My opinion: The fish was very flavorful and well cooked. There was a jus on the plate which I really enjoyed. I couldn’t detect any trace of saffron flavor in the potatoes, but the green beans were crisp-tender and the braised leeks were perfectly melting. The best course of the meal.
The other main course choices were Grilled AAA Beef Tenderloin, Butter Chicken and Cannelloni Pasta.
A selection of warm fresh breads with butter
My opinion: Bread wasn’t warm and as usual for airplane bread, didn’t have a great crust and was too dense and chewy.
Cheeses: Camembert, Yellow Cheddar and Oka served with Crackers
My opinion: Great cheeses but by now I’m pretty full so this is pure gourmandise.
Dessert: Tahitian Vanilla, Belgian Chocolate and Cappuccino Ice Cream
or Sliced Seasonal Fruit
My opinion: I chose the fruits because I can’t eat ice cream. They weren’t anything special.
Overall a good meal, which gets bonus points because it’s served in nice contemporary tableware and eaten with real silverware. I have to say that I always eat airplane food (and like it) so I’m not a difficult judge to convince. It was definitely a notch above whatever I’ve ever eaten in an airplane, but it wasn’t what I would call fine dining. Even so, when I saw a flight attendant walk by my seat with a tray full of those little foil-covered 4” x 6” rectangular containers that were to be served in economy class, I admit I was happy to enjoy my perfectly cooked black cod served in a preheated plate.
But that’s not all! On our way back, we got stuck in the London and Paris snow catastrophe and our flight was delayed. We had to stay in Paris for one more night and the next day, I managed to get us upgraded on the way back as well! The meal, prepared by French caterers this time, was a litle bit more refined. Here’s how it went down:
Appetizer: Smoked Foie Gras and Duck Magret with Pan-Fried Mango and Toast
Salad: Seasonal Salad with Mixed Peppers, Celeriac Julienne and Radish, served with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Main Course: John Dory Fish topped with Citrus Fruits and served with Tomato Balsamic Sauce, Cucumber, Baby Carrots and Wild Rice
(The other choices were: Grilled Fillet of Beef Marsala, Pan-Fried Breast of Chicken, Tagliatelle with coriander, lemon and tomato sauce.)
A selection of warm fresh breads with butter
Cheeses: Cantal, Brie and Morbier served with crackers.
Dessert: Warm Signature Chocolate Lava Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream
The foie gras was delicious, the fish was good but a little overcooked, the bread wasn’t better but the butter was, and the lava cake was perfect.
A special mention for the light meal that was served before arrival in this flight, it was fresh, healthy and satisfying: Chilled plate featuring roasted chicken fillets, Edam cheese with grilled zucchini and bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes. Also served with bread, orange segments and chocolate truffles.
Overall, of course, these two flights were the best I have ever taken. The food was good, but I’d say the biggest difference is that it’s seasoned well (airplane food is always so bland!). While other airlines are hiring celebrity chefs to develop recipes for business class, Air Canada has yet to do so but says on their website that they’ve conducted two years of extensive customer research to eliminate meal carts and casserole-style dishes and come up with these individually served meals, better presented and finished with chef touches like drizzles, sauces and fresh herbs. Wines are selected by renowned Canadian sommeliers.
My conclusion: I won’t ever pay for a first class ticket but if I can get upgraded once in a while, it’ll be a very nice perk. I indeed noticed that most people in first class are upgraded or traveling on corporate accounts. More space, more sleep, better food, what’s not to like?
Did you ever enjoy a first class flight? Which airline were you on? How did you like it?