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07 Jun, 2009

Surely it’ll never take off

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

What do you call in-flight catering when it’s eaten at ground level? Richard DeDomenici calls it art… and invited food critic Jay Rayner to try it

Richard DeDomenici, an artist, is an optimistic man. He believes there are a few hundred people out there who would not only volunteer but actually pay to eat airplane food, without the added incentive of getting anywhere. “I do think that by enabling people to eat plane food on the ground they will be dissuaded from flying.” They will, he thinks, face up to the environmentally unfriendly realities of air travel and therefore give it up.

In one regard, he has a point. Getting on a plane for the catering is a bit like visiting Hull for the climate. Today, he is determined to prove it to me, albeit in a makeshift fashion, for his art installation, The Plane Food Cafe, part of the 2 Degrees arts festival, featuring works engaging with issues around climate change, is not entirely ready for take off.

When it starts serving, on 16 June, it will be located in a shipping container in the courtyard of Toynbee Studios in London’s Whitechapel. Guests will pay £5 to sit in the seats for half an hour and be served trays of food by the artist who may or may not be dressed as a trolley dolly. He hasn’t decided yet.

For now, they have arranged a bunch of salvaged seats from a 737 in a rehearsal studio, with a few internal panels from said plane. One part of the experience is authentic, however: the trays of food, sent over from a caterer at London City Airport that wishes to remain anonymous. In theory, this is because they don’t want their airline clients knowing what they are doing with the leftovers; in practice, I suspect it’s because they don’t want us to name the guilty.

“One of the things about flying is that it dampens your taste buds by about 30%,” DeDomenici says as he straps himself in opposite me. “Which means they have to make the dishes extra flavourful. So eaten on the ground, they should taste great.”

Well perhaps, but only if you think airplane food tastes all right in the air. Which it doesn’t. Indeed, DeDomenici admits the project was inspired by a barbed comment from multi-Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing who said British pub food was so bad: “If you want a decent bite to eat, you’d be better off getting on a plane.”

On my tray, I have a foil container of what some might call beef curry and I would call cruel and unusual punishment. Hunks of beef from a cow that probably died of natural causes lie in a brown toxic slick. It makes me think only of the latrine-jumping sequence in Slumdog Millionaire (If you’ve seen it, you’ll get the reference; if you haven’t, be grateful).

A dish of spaghetti bolognese looks like it has been dispensed from the other end of the human body to the curry. Stop grimacing. It was worse for me. I had to eat it.

DeDomenici admits to being obsessed with air travel. He tried to give up for 18 months, but found it was ruining his career because he couldn’t take international commissions. Then he staged a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival called Super Jumbo about all the terrible things flying does to the human body. Later, he became fascinated by “snarge”, the slang word for the liquefied remains of birds after they’ve been sucked through jet engines. He tells me all about snarge while I attack the curry, which is nice.

What, I ask him, is the point of all this? He frowns. “I strive to cause uncertainty through my work,” he says. “And that leads to possibility.” He admits, though, that he often doesn’t discover the point of his work until afterwards. On my tray, I discover a single After Eight. Never before have I been so grateful for that delicate sliver of minty chocolate. For God’s sake, could somebody please shout: “Doors to manual”?

• The Plane Food Cafe will operate six times nightly from 16 June at Toynbee Studios, Commercial Street, London E1

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