Ever wondered where your airline meal comes from? If you've ever flown through the Middle East, it probably came from here.
This one building provides the fresh food, drinks and other amenities for every Emirates flights leaving Dubai, at a rate of one every two or three minutes, to hundreds of different destinations around the world. And the only preservative used is a bit of lemon juice. (56K and mobile warning: 15MB of images ahead!)
Emirates' flight catering facility is known as EKFC1. I visited it, and it's awesome.
By the time it was completed and certified in 2008, EKFC1 had cost Emirates around $209 million to construct. Originally designed to deliver 115,000 meals per day, continual expansion means the building can now handle a full 175,000 plates. (There's another similarly massive and impressive facility too, called EKFC2, that caters to 125 different airlines flying out of Dubai like Singapore, Air France and Virgin Atlantic.)
The facility covers everything, from the point at which the food catering carts leave planes at Emirates' dedicated $5.9 billion Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport — previously the largest building in the world, and still the largest airline terminal in the world, being almost twice as large as Beijing Capital's Terminal 3 — to when food goes back on them before take-off.
The sheer scale of the operation is just stunning. The building has a total of 58,600m2 of floor space — over eight football fields — split into a rabbit warren of storage and preparation and dispatch areas. It's not just food preparation, but absolutely everything in that entire chain of operations. Here it is.
The entire facility is a one-way flow; that way there's no chance of contamination from dirty carts or plates or containers coming into contact with anything fresh. But there's several streams through, too, for different items. Not only food, but garbage disposal and cart cleaning and crockery and cutlery and amenity kits and bottles of champagne.
Everything starts at the receiving rooms, the point at which all the food and other materials comes into the facility through a constantly arriving and departing fleet of vehicles. To reduce the chance of food contamination, everything enters the facility on an Emirates-owned and certified pallet; anything on a different pallet is transferred by machine. At that point, every food or amenity product is scanned by dual-view X-ray machine to identify and quarantine any item with any unwanted contaminants.
That kind of turnover means that there's a lot of goods going up from the ground floor, where deliveries are made and processed and scanned, up to storage and cooking on Level One. There's only a couple of lifts, though, because lifts take up precious floor space. And if those lifts break, the entire delicate operation grinds to a halt — food just doesn't get delivered and cooked. Emirates keeps a lift maintenance and repair team from the manufacturer on call and waiting at EKFC1, just in case.
Alongside the receiving facility is the delivery point for used catering carts, thousands of them. Emirates manages to push 7500 carts through the facility every day, where they're emptied of the previous flight's leftovers, mechanically washed by a bespoke system tuned to work at maximum effectiveness and to most efficiently clean any spillage or errant bacteria off the carts' aluminium bodies.
Emirates has a full 221 planes in its current operational fleet, 59 of which are the massive Airbus A380 — and that means a hell of a lot of passengers, a hell of a lot of food, and a hell of a lot of waste. That means all your waste, the leftover food and half-drunk drinks and the wrapping from your complimentary blanket and headphones has to be pulled out of the carts and trashed by Emirates' dedicated garbage disposal team and vacuum-powered waste system.
Every piece of Emirates crockery, glassware and cutlery is conveyor-belt-washed at EKFC1, too — to the tune of two billion pieces per year. Ever wondered why cabin crew organise plates as much as possible before they go into the used catering cart? That's because it reduces the hands-on time it takes for EKFC staff to organise washing and improves overall efficiency.
From that point, after being washed at specific temperatures per item, every piece of cutlery and crockery and glassware is separated into one-type bins — 10,000 of them — which are barcoded and tagged and weighed, to determine exactly what item is inside and how many of them there are, before being whisked away by a giant computer-controlled overhead conveyor belt to the (many) food preparation areas.
Once food is upstairs, it goes into short-term storage. The Flight Catering Facility doesn't have a complex computerised warehouse management system, but there's a very good reason for that — it doesn't need one. Food, whether it's raw ingredients and materials or pre-completed extras like fun-size Toblerones and Kit-Kats, simply doesn't sit in the warehouse space for long enough that it'll get lost. An entirely full warehouse of food will be entirely empty after 8 or 9 hours of operation. That's why those lifts are so important.
On our circuitous route through the facility, though, I visited the clean cart re-stocking area — the place where all the expensive bottles of wine for business, caviar for first class, amenities and other "dry goods" are packed into the freshly cleaned catering carts. Although there are a bunch of different cart sizes, everything has a very specific purpose and the ground staff are specially trained as to what goes where.
The stars of the show, though, are the hot and cold kitchens; they're the places where all the fresh food gets made. First up is the cold kitchen; if you've ever eaten an Emirates fruit plate, snacked on a mini burger, or had olives on a skewer, this building is where it was made. There's a huge amount of variety in Emirates' meals, too — 1524 different choices, over all of its routes around the world, with the menu changing per destination and being rotated at least four times a year.
Because the food is so fresh and no preservatives are used, food doesn't wait long in EKFC1 before it's transferred onto a flight and eaten by you or me. Because of this, every food bin and carton is tagged with a colour code, one of seven for all the different days of the week that it was either delivered or produced. If anything sits around longer than its sticker allows, it'll be turned into garbage.
Every piece of food at Emirates is prepared with three pieces of info as a guide — there's a step-by-step written instruction, and a picture, but the main guide is the Gold Standard. It's the perfect plate. And, within reason, each plate is organised by the chefs exactly that way — so that it all looks the same. Everyone gets the same meal, no-one misses out, and it's all organised in a way that makes it easy to eat.
Thousands of plates of each particular entree, main and dessert meal are prepared daily, split pretty evenly across the cold (for salads, entrees, fruit, snacks) and hot (soups, chicken, fish, red meat) kitchens. The cold kitchen handles a bunch of fruit and vegetables as its main purpose, as well as cold meats and cheese plates for the pointy end.
Walk from cold to hot kitchens and you'll find yourself in the pastry shop in the middle of the two. If you have a sweet tooth, this is heaven — cakes aplenty, custard tarts, ice creams, and assorted Arabic sweets like baklava and om ali. Since everything is made at scale, too, there are tubs of freshly mixed custard and sheets of chocolate sponge cake just sitting around ready to be used.
Bordering the pastry shop are all the ovens that cook all the good stuff; these are big, walk-in industrial units that cook dozens of platters of pastries at a time and do so at quite high speed. Next to those, the temporary storage areas where bins upon bins upon bins of treats are stored temporarily before being loaded onto carts by delivery staff and then shuttled out onto waiting airplanes.
Then there's the hot kitchen. Over 500 chefs work at EKFC1 at any one time, and the majority are in the hot end. Massive troughs of soup, giant woks of curry — everything is done on an industrial level to serve the massive amount of traffic and of customers that this one facility caters to. Recipes are down to an art, but Emirates still has its staff hand-cooking and tasting meals to make sure they're up to the usual high standards.
Emirates' EKFC has a dedicated head chef for each of the different cuisines in its repertoire, and teams that know their recipes off by heart and understand what goes into making a nice piece of chicken or salmon or potato cake. And they're good, too — Emirates says the chef that takes care of its green chicken curry has bested world-class, restaurant-running professionals, all while cooking much larger batches.
There's an absolute science behind the cooking, to ensure everything is done to the correct health standards and to ensure the food tastes its best while not being overcooked and unpalatable. When procedure is followed, the food is consistent and delivers consistent results when re-heated or cooking is finished in the galleys onboard Emirates' airplanes. EKFC is still a restaurant kitchen, with normal ingredients and fresh, raw food — but just writ large.
After the hot and cold kitchens, it's time for the food to be transferred from its industrial tubs into individual serves. This is where your meal — as you eat it when sitting down to breakfast, lunch or dinner on an Emirates jet — comes into being. This is the production line heart of EKFC, with staff arranging cooked ingredients onto the (freshly washed) crockery. Everything is doled out in specific sizes, and in the case of custards and sauces machinery is used to ensure the right serving sizes are delivered.
To give you an idea of the scale and the constantly-running pace of the entire EKFC, here's a quick overview of the flights that EKFC was cooking, plating, producing and packing for when I made my visit at around 2PM in the afternoon. Just for the hot kitchen, in the space of 90 minutes the facility had to produce nearly 5000 economy meals and over 600 business and first meals. That's a lot of food to make and deliver in an hour and a half.
Once it's all made, though, the entire process becomes slightly less glamourous. Past the dishing zone, there's tray setting and equipment packing — the area where everything disappears back into those squat grey aluminium equipment and catering carts. Not only food and drinks, but amenities, condiments, cutlery, chopsticks and duty free goods alike are packed away. After that, they're taken by the dozen off to the airside delivery point where they're loaded onto Emirates jets before they fly away.
EKFC1 isn't the end game for Emirates, either. The airline is in the middle of constructing additional facilities to meet increasing demand, as it supercharges its running fleet and increases orders for hundreds of new planes like the Boeing 777X into the second decade of the 21st century and beyond. And, when Dubai launches its new Dubai World Central Airport in a few years — to be the world's biggest, eclipsing DXB and pushing it into second place — there'll be a new one as well.
Campbell Simpson traveled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates. This article is part of a feature series looking behind the scenes at Emirates' base of operations in its home city, exploring its engineering, catering and network flight control facilities.