In Bed With Virgin
Guests often ask if they can see the chef. More often than not, it’s just to praise you for a wonderful dinner. Sometimes it’s to complain about their evening, or because they’re regulars and want to say g’day.
In 2002 when I was running Salt in Sydney, four guys were eating in the restaurant and they asked to see me.
It was the middle of service but I ducked out to say hello and they said they were from England and that their boss was coming next month and they’d love for him to come and eat here.
They asked for my number and I told them “No problem, I’d look after him.” I asked them what company they worked for and said “Virgin.”
The next thing that came out of my mouth, I’ll never forget... I asked them “Who’s your boss?” Sometimes it takes me a while to put two and two together and they said, “Sir Richard Branson.” I nearly fell off my chair.
To be honest I didn’t really think much about it after that evening until about a month later when I received a call from a guy with this English accent.
“Hi Luke, it’s Richard Branson.” I thought my chefs were pulling my leg, so I played along… “Oh ye how can I help?”
He told me his colleagues had eaten at my restaurant and recommended he check it out. Then it dawned on me, this was actually Sir Richard bloody Branson!
He wanted a table for lunch for 10 at Salt on Friday… Mind you, it was Friday and we were just about to open the doors for lunch. The restaurant was booked out and we couldn’t scramble anything together so I recommended he head to our other restaurant, Moorish, in Bondi.
Despite about to be thrown into lunch service, he asked me to come and meet them at Moorish. I said sure. When I got there, I ordered champagne for the table and he asked me to take a seat with them. We had a nice chat but I had to leave to go back to Salt.
I thought that was the end of that until later that night I got a call from Richard. My heart skipped a beat and I thought shit, he’s had a bad experience or worse, been poisoned! Can you imagine the headlines?!
“Hi Luke, I want to bring my wife Joan into your restaurant Salt because she couldn’t make lunch at Moorish,” Richard said. “For when?” I asked. “In about 10 minutes. We’re on our way now,” he said.
Despite the restaurant being fully booked on a Friday night, I said “Sure thing!”
When they arrived, everyone stopped and stared at them. People were whispering, “Look, it’s Richard Branson.” It was amazing.
I went over and greeted them and he asked if we could just make up a menu for them. I enjoy that challenge, it means you can really show off your skills and take the diner on a journey through your food.
At the end, he asked if I could come over for a chat... “Luke, I really enjoy what you’re doing with your food. We have an airline starting out here in Australia in about 8-10 months called Virgin Atlantic, we’d love for you to do the food on it.”
I was in shock. It was certainly going to be a challenge but it’s not often you get asked personally by one of the best entrepreneurs in the world to cook the food for one of the biggest airlines in the world.
He told me think about it, but in the meantime, he’d love for me to come and cook for a few dinners for some people on his private island in the Caribbean.
I thought I was dreaming… Was he for real!? I said yes with no hesitation.
The next thing I know, I was whisked away to Necker Island with a few of my chefs. We were flown first class on an all-expenses paid trip to cook for 15-20 people… as you do!
In the end, I didn’t do much cooking, mainly just one dinner, which was a breeze. Instead, Richard wanted me and my team to just kick back and enjoy the island. We ended up staying 2 weeks, kite surfing, sailing, water-skiing, kayaking, playing tennis and power-boating.
We spoke food and business and by the end of the trip, I’d landed the Virgin Atlantic consulting chef gig for the Sydney to London leg.
I would present them menus and recipes and gave it to the caterers. I later became the chef for Virgin America Business Class and then they launched Virgin Australia and John Borghetti came on as CEO and approached me to help with the transformation.
He had a clear vision for the food on board and let my team do our thing and the rest is history! Today we consult for all Virgin Australia Business Class international and domestic routes.
I’ve been in the airline food business for about 17 years now and have Richard to thank for opening the door for me. We’re clearly very close business partners but also great mates.
When I needed help launching the Inspired Series, Richard was very generous with his time and helped us get the development program for young chefs up off the ground.
We always catch up when we’re in the same country. I was on Necker Island with him last year, and got to see him in July when we launched the new Melbourne to Hong Kong route, which was amazing.
Creating airline food is an interesting challenge and I approach it with the same attitude I do all my food: keep it simple.
Airline food can get a bad rap but it’s improved tenfold over the years with technology and airlines teaming up with well-known chefs.
As well, many people don't realise there are a few restrictions you need to consider, such as heating, size, and prep time on board. Our menus are strategically designed to take into account the cabin’s low humidity, which strips the moisture out of your mouth and affects your taste buds. To combat this, we create meals with stronger flavours and add moisture to them so they don’t dry out.
If we were to serve fish, we’d pick an oily fish like salmon, kingfish or barramundi. For meat, we use secondary cuts like short ribs, beef cheeks, rump and things like that, which have fat content in them and that braise and hold well in an oven.
The menus change seasonally but we also keep some signatures on, like our duck curry.
Depending on the route, we tailor the menu to the cuisine. For the Hong Kong route, we offer a range of traditional Asian dishes but also Western dishes.
Same for the LA to Sydney route. When I was in LA, I came across Jin Patisserie and fell in love with Kristie Choo’s chocolate tart, so we serve her desserts on that leg.
For all the meals we create, we test and perfect them in our airline oven, which sits in our VA test kitchen at MOJO in Sydney.
Every few months we train airline staff on how the food should be heated, plated up and what wines to match with it to give VA passengers, our diners, a restaurant experience in the sky.
Today I have an amazing in-house VA team who work very hard to keep the wheels turning.
Our Corporate Chef, Marty, Assistant Research and Development Chef, Matt, and Group Training and Events Manager, Greta, help make all the dining in the sky magic happen.
Working in this industry has been really rewarding for me and it’s something I hope I can do for many more years.
I guess the next step is catering for Virgin Galactic Spaceship? No joke, Richard and I have spoken about it... Watch this space!