What It's Like To Be... Virgin Australia's Corporate Chef with Martin Stacey
8.2 min read
The path you took to get to where you are today?
I arrived in Australia from England in 2003, where I’d worked in restaurants and country hotels. I first spent 9 months travelling and working throughout Australia.
When I came back to Sydney, I met with an English Head chef who I respected, and with a copy of that year’s Good Food Guide, I asked him for some suggestions of the best restaurants in Sydney.
He proceeded to mark some options for me, one of those being Luke’s flagship restaurant in Darlinghurst, Salt.
The next day I got the book out and the first restaurant I called was Salt, Luke answered, and I asked if he was looking for any chefs, he said he was and asked if I could come in that Saturday for a trial.
There was only one problem, that Saturday was the 2003 Rugby World cup final between Australia and England in Sydney.
I then rather uncomfortably asked if I could come in the following week and much to my surprise Luke agreed. I ended up getting a full-time role at Salt, even though England won the world cup against Australia and I also had a Mohawk at time.
From there I went on to work for Luke at glass brasserie at the Hilton Sydney and my current role as Corporate Chef for Virgin Australia, when Luke became the resident chef for then Virgin Blue in 2010.
Our team is responsible for the design and development of the inflight business class menus across the Virgin Australia network.
We also look after the premium menus on the ground and at marketing and partner events.
With assistance from Luke and our wine panel, which includes Mauro Bortolato, Luke’s Head Sommelier at glass brasserie, we also select the business class wines.
How do you go about choosing what goes on the inflight menu?
We have a framework that dictates the basic make up of our menu.
For example, on our long haul international flights, there is a choice of four main courses, one always being red meat, one white meat, one fish main course and one vegetarian option.
We meet regularly internally and with the relevant teams at Virgin Australia to discuss our menu designs and pinpoint what adjustments need to made.
During this process, we review prior and current onboard feedback from our cabin crew and guests, new trends and any dishes or concepts that may be receiving positive feedback from any of Luke’s restaurants and we try to incorporate these.
A typical day in your role?
There’s no typical day for me, I could be in the kitchen working on new ideas and recipes, meeting current or potential new suppliers to develop products, working on photoshoots, updating important meal specifications or be travelling with our partners both domestically and overseas.
What do you love about your job?
I enjoy the creativity of the role and coming up with new ideas or concepts whether they are in the air or on the ground.
When we refitted our long haul international Boeing 777 aircrafts with our new ‘The Business’ suites we had an innovation day at Virgin’s Head office, The Village in Bowen Hills. Our refitted aircraft was going to have an expanded inflight bar that wasn’t utilised in the morning and we’d been thinking about how we could effectively use this space.
We ended up utilising this as a breakfast bar, so passengers can stretch their legs after sleeping and grab a Nespresso, croissant or fruit instead of being confined to their seat. The breakfast bar has proved to be extremely popular.
I also enjoy discovering and collaborating with suppliers and developing new products, which provides our passengers with a bespoke product to enjoy. Australia has some great passionate producers doing amazing things with food.
I’m proud to say the vast majority of the companies we began working with in 2010, we’re still doing work with, and in return, they continue to deliver some high-quality products for our guests.
The challenges you face?
Every role has challenges, but I prefer to focus on how we can navigate around these to still get the outcome we want.
Budgets are a challenge in any role, particularly in airlines, it’s crucial to create menus that utilise the same pieces and number of equipment, which can be a challenge on different departure times as a lunch/dinner would normally require more food than a late night overnight flight. There are ways to manage this though.
The other biggest challenge is finding the time to meet up with everyone in person face to face.
The nature of the role means that we have teams everywhere throughout Australia and overseas and it can be difficult to catch up at times.
We work with many highly capable and talented teams, whether it be Virgin’s inflight team, airline catering companies we use around the world or our premium lounge teams. I am conscious that although they are largely autonomous and high performing they still need the face-to-face time with us to know we value the job they do and that we’re there for them.
What amazes you about your work with Virgin Australia?
I think the most impressive thing about airlines and airline catering is the sheer scale and complexity of the work.
There are so many moving parts that all must be in line to make it all happen.
When we launched our domestic business class we went overnight from having no flights with business class to 450 flights the next day with business class.
We’re blessed to have fabulous cabin crew at Virgin, I’ve seen over the years that if we get our work right for them behind the scenes, they’ll really deliver and make the magic happen for our passengers.
Any funny stories?
I think I’m well known in the office for always having some type of snack available for any one that wants one.
It doesn’t sound like a problem, but we receive a lot of samples from suppliers who want their products on board, I try to be very specific with potential suppliers to only send minimal quantities to avoid wastage and due to the issues of finding somewhere to store it or overindulging.
I’ve receive 300 chocolate bars before when I asked for only 8 samples and 80 kg of Frankfurters when I needed only 2 sausages!