Around the world in 25 years: Life as an airline caterer
I grew up between two airports on the outskirts of Prague. I remember staring up at the aircraft that soared over my home, marvelling at the mechanics of these flying machines. I began to craft my own model aeroplanes, spending hours constructing and hand-painting a collection that gradually took over my bedroom.
Naturally, the first place I went looking for a job after finishing culinary school was Czech Airlines.
The airline catering environment turned out to be very different to the restaurants and hotel kitchens I’d cooked in up until that point. An experienced chef sensed my apprehension and took me under her wing. She taught me discipline, advanced techniques and the importance of cooking with the finished product in mind. In our industry, chefs sometimes feel far removed from the customer, but my mentor helped me envision my food as it would be plated and presented on board the plane. I progressed quickly under her guidance and was soon promoted to shift leader.
Believe it or not, I was still yet to experience air travel myself. It wasn’t until my tenth year in airline catering – shortly after dnata recruited me as head chef of its Prague facility – that I finally enjoyed my first flight. I’ll never forget the thrill of take-off, the birds-eye view from my window and the anticipation I felt as we circled Paris before landing. Then there was the sheer joy of exploring a new city and sampling dishes so different to anything I’d ever known.
I was hooked.
Nowadays, I fly at least five times a year. A head chef must be hungry for new ideas and recipes – and for me, these come from travel.
I’m particularly crazy about Asian cuisine. It has captivated me with its aroma, taste, and the variety of colours and ingredients used. I spent time in Vietnam and came back inspired to recreate street food like curried cod, crispy spring rolls and smoked duck. The Vietnamese smoke their duck on charcoal, seasoned with five spice, honey and ginger. We follow this process to replicate this beautiful dish.
Our airline partners are another source of inspiration. Our Prague facility caters for 15 airlines, each with its own market, preferred cuisine and collection of national favourites for us to master. There’s little room for boredom when you’re working with recipes and ingredients from all over the globe. I can’t imagine returning to the restaurant scene now – having to specialise in a single cuisine and stick to the same menu for months on end.
Every so often I have to pinch myself. I still find it hard to believe that the young boy who spent so many hours ‘plane spotting’ is now responsible for feeding millions of travellers each year. My team and I derive so much satisfaction from making inflight dining a true ‘experience’ – part of the journey that passengers look forward to and enjoy.
The best part is I know there’s still plenty more to come. There will always be new places, cuisines, ingredients and techniques to discover. Part of the joy of being a chef is that we never stop learning.
About Vaclav (Vasek) Bodnar
Celebrated internationally for his Sushi and Asian dishes, Vaclav Bodnar is the driving force at our Prague business, where he leads a team of 130 staff.
With more than 25 years’ experience in inflight catering, ‘Vasek’ as he is affectionately known by his team, champions quality, simplicity and creativity. Vasek travels often, seeking out flavours and inspiration to bring home to his customers in Prague.
He also collaborates regularly with leading chefs outside of our industry. As a member of the World Association of Chefs Societies, a patron of the Slany Culinary School and regular host of culinary seminars, Vasek is a great mentor for aspiring chefs in Prague and across our wider global business.