Food on the fly

El Al’s new business-class menu takes flight with help from Chef Shahaf Shabtay.

EL AL meals have changed. This one includes spring chicken with bulgur in a red-wine sauce, and grilled artichoke with chimichurri (photo credit: PINI SILUK)
EL AL meals have changed. This one includes spring chicken with bulgur in a red-wine sauce, and grilled artichoke with chimichurri
(photo credit: PINI SILUK)
Get ready to taste your way around the world, as El Al has launched its new menu for business-class passengers, with the help of renowned Israeli Chef Shahaf Shabtay. Over the past few months, Shabtay has created a new culinary strategy for El Al flights and upgraded the courses served in all classes. Working with Shabtay was the professional team at Tamam – El Al’s catering company. Aside from his work with the airline, Shabtay is also head chef of Nithan Thai in Tel Aviv.
Shabtay’s appointment is part of El Al’s ongoing plan to continuously improve the service and products offered on every flight. “The culinary facet is a significant and exciting part of the flight experience. We chose Chef Shahaf because, like El Al, he embodies the qualities of Israel: creativity, as well as the desire to change and diversify, to renew and to surprise. And precisely because of the various restrictions on food in the aviation world, the professional challenge facing Shahaf was very great, and the results are excellent and exciting,” says El Al Inflight Service Division director Mira Fizitski.
Chef Shabtay, 43, grew up in Kibbutz Amiad. He served in the IDF’s naval commando unit for five years, and then set off to the École Grégoire-Ferrandi in Paris to hone his culinary skills. His inspiration is a reflection of his years spent cooking and traveling throughout Asia. Shabtay established a private cooking school in Bangkok, where he fell in love with Asian cuisine and assimilated many of its flavors and techniques. Since then, Shabtay has worked at restaurants in New York, Amsterdam, Mumbai and Tel Aviv.
In 2007, Shabtay founded the Prague Asian-fusion hotspot SaSaZu, which earned Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, among other kudos. Shabtay has also worked as a consulting chef for the Qli Company, which owns hotels and casinos around the world. In 2016, Shabtay returned to Israel as head chef of Nithan Thai.
It was a great honor for Shabtay that El Al considered him for the head chef position. “Somebody came and told me that El Al is looking for a candidate to be its head chef, and they looked at all the chefs throughout the city,” he says. “They came here. I was very excited, but these days most of the companies are looking for celebrity chefs. I’m not a celebrity chef. I like to take care of things, to pick things, like I did with the restaurant, to be creative, to work.
“When they came, I really felt like a football player who they called to the national team. I’m an Israeli and I’m very proud of my country, proud of my roots. Certainly, I was very happy to get the opportunity. Then what impressed them was that I really want to do this job, not because I want to get more followers. El Al is at this phase that they don’t need a face of a celebrity – they need to re-organize and shout out the new concept. So this is what made an impression on them, that I can really take the company and change the way of thinking.”
FOR SHABTAY, it took many months of reflection and hard work to come up with an exciting, inspired and diverse menu for business-class passengers. “We look at El Al now as a restaurant. We see the plane as a restaurant. And there are 45 planes in El Al, so we look at it like we own 45 restaurants, and this is our culinary technique: steam, grill, oven and bakery. We shout out creativity, we shout out that we combine culinary techniques, we shout out that we bring the daylight of a restaurant into the airplane,” says Shabtay.
And what can be found on the menu? For the first course: grilled artichoke, Romanian zucchini, colorful Galilee-grown carrots, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, radish and chestnut salad, and a selection of warm breads.
For the main course, there is a choice that consists of home-style spring chicken with bulgur in a red-wine sauce; asado cuts, cooked for three hours, served with apricot-plum tansia, macadamia laksa gravy and steamed rice; or fish filet kadaif with a corn, coconut and basil sauce. For those with a sweet tooth, desserts include a chocolate and hazelnut tartlet and pistachio caramel crunch brownies and pistachio macaroons.
Along with the new foods, a business-class wine menu is also being introduced, led by the one of Israel’s leading wine experts, Yair Haidu. Some of the wines featured are the 2017 Sauvignon blanc from Galil Mountain Winery in the Upper Galilee, the 2017 Petit Castel from Jerusalem’s Castel Winery, and the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Recanati Winery in the Hefer Valley.  
Unlike at a restaurant, creating an on-board menu brings with it very specific challenges and constraints. Nevertheless, Chef Shabtay seems to take all of this in his stride. “El Al gives me the space to do everything I want. But there is budgeting, weight, there is a limit of how much food we can put on the airplane, kashrut, food control, and the health department. It is much stricter than anything. This is the creative part, more than just the food to create [a menu] that can be approved by all these departments.”
For Shabtay, the future with El Al is bright. “We have big, big plans at El Al – the whole culinary scene, not just business-class menus. We are going to do a food truck, food from around the country, chef on board. We surprise people, and do cooking school for our clients. We are going to change the buzz about El Al and the vibe about the culinary scene.
“El Al is an international company,” Shabtay says. “It belongs to everybody. It is the flag of all our country. I feel very blessed to have the chance to join them, and I think their strategy is always the need to be seen, to be fresh. El Al is a dream. I love that El Al encourages us in what we do.”