Contrary to popular belief, last year’s Restaurant A380 was not the first time Singapore Airlines turned a parked jet into a restaurant.
No, the original aero-restaurant took place in September 1979, when a group of journalists boarded a stationary Boeing 747-200 to sample Hugo’s in the Sky- a fine dining collaboration between Singapore Airlines and the Hyatt Hotel Singapore, exclusively for First Class passengers.
What’s more intriguing is that this media tasting wasn’t to mark the debut of the menu; it was for a relaunch. Hugo’s in the Sky began a full two years before that, but to fully appreciate its genesis, we need to go back even further back to 1971.
In October 1971 the doors officially opened at the Singapore Hyatt Hotel, the chain’s largest international location outside the USA, and yet another reminder of Singapore’s rapid ascent on the world stage.
The opening event was met with a rabid response- only 3,000 invitations were issued, but many more gatecrashers descended to join in the festivities, which included a treasure hunt and an all-you-can-eat buffet spread. Guests (at least the official ones) were issued passports with space for eight stamps, and completed passports could be traded for a free dinner at the hotel’s Islander Restaurant anytime in the next 12 months.
It was clear the Hyatt brand already carried weight among Singaporeans, which only grew in the years to follow as the hotel became a regular venue for socialite weddings, trade conferences, fashion shows, and diplomatic shindigs.
It also earned a reputation for excellent F&B, with signature restaurant Hugo’s Grill (its second outpost after opening at the Hyatt in Hong Kong in 1969) raking in the plaudits. Granted, Singapore in the early 1970s was not exactly a hotbed of fine dining, but you can only beat what’s in front of you, and beat them it did.
Perhaps there was no better endorsement than the fact that Singapore Airlines came knocking a few years later.
Now, an airline-restaurant partnership wasn’t unchartered territory. In the 1950s, Pan Am was already partnering with Maxim’s (no, not the Maxim you delete from your browsing history) of Paris to offer First Class passengers dishes like Roast Duckling Bigarade, Lobster Américaine and Rock Cornish Game Hen.
But it was still relatively rare for an airline to bring in outside culinary consultants (the only previous engagement of note was when French airline UTA hired Raymond Oliver in 1973). Most carriers believed in stuffing First Class passengers with as much black truffle and foie gras as they could handle, and you didn’t need a culinary consultant to tell you that.
However, the belief at Singapore Airlines was that a branded meal might prove more palatable to customers, even if it wasn’t radically different from what competitors were offering. This actually displayed a remarkable amount of foresight, seeing as how the airline celebrity chef trend was still decades away (Singapore Airlines’ own International Culinary Panel featuring Alfred Portale and Georges Blanc only launched in 1998).
And so it came to pass that a partnership with Hyatt was struck and Hugo’s in the Sky was created. The Hugo’s name, incidentally, comes from a purely imaginary Bavarian host and namesake Hugo Ludwig Wilhelm von Gluckstein. Guests at the restaurant would be greeted by Hugo’s metal suit of armour at the entrance; kitschy as hell, but hey, it was the 70s.
Surprisingly enough, Singapore Airlines chose to launch Hugo’s in the Sky on a relatively short haul route: Singapore to Hong Kong. At 9 a.m on 15 October 1977, SQ8 (a B747-200, or “Super B” as the airline called it) departed Paya Lebar Airport for a flight that was blocked at just under four hours.
In the First Class cabin was a full load of 32 passengers and journalists, plus chef Josef Kral from Hugo’s Restaurant (while flying chefs are most synonymous with Turkish Airlines today, they’ve been around for some time now).
As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, chef Kral sprung into action. He had to work fast, because the menu read like a marathon:
- Lobster and Caviar Canapes
- Puff Pastry with Chopped Ham, Salmon or Curry
- Old French Game Pate with Sauce Cumberland
- Lasonby Smoked Scotch Salmon (served with oven-fresh rolls)
- Cream of Peas Champagne Soup
- Heart of Palm Salad
- Kansas-bred Prime Rib Eye Roast
- Suprême of Chicken Perigord
- Barbequed Fresh King Bedok Prawns
- Accompaniments: Croquette Potatoes, Pilaff Rice, Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Tomatoes
- Hugo’s Whip
- Hot Apple Tart
- Peter’s Snow Eggs
- Cheese Board and Fruit
- Iced Bonbons
It was a meal big on portions and showmanship. Kral personally plated items like the Cream of Peas Champagne Soup, pouring in the champagne and adding dollops of whipped cream at each seat. He later walked through the cabin beating egg whites for the Hugo’s Whip dessert, which I can only guess was some sort of meringue.
In fact, wrote Violet Oon (yes, that Violet Oon) for New Nation (the Singapore newspaper which shuttered in 1982, not the contemporary satirical website), it was “too long a meal for such a short flight”, as no sooner had the iced bonbons been served that the seatbelt sign was switched on for descent.
But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Keep in mind, personal inflight entertainment was still decades away. Unless you were flying on Braniff Airlines (which introduced the video game Pong for passengers in 1975), food was the entertainment, and if it helped the time pass faster, even better.
The menu was served on the Hong Kong route for exactly one month, before rotating to Sydney in November 1977.
I surmise that Hugo’s was subsequently rotated onto other First Class routes, but the news coverage died down, presumably because it wasn’t so novel anymore.
Then in September 1979, Singapore Airlines decided to create some buzz around the idea once again. This time, it invited journalists to what truly was Restaurant A380’s predecessor- even if it was held onboard a Boeing 747 instead.
Passengers were served cold towels and welcome drinks as the usual pre-takeoff announcements played over the intercom. But the chocks stayed on for the duration of the two and a half hour lunch, as the aircraft never left the ground.
The event was to showcase the new Hugo’s menu that was due to be served next month on the Hong Kong to Honolulu leg of Singapore Airlines’ Singapore – Hong Kong – Honolulu – San Francisco flight (two stop routings like these weren’t uncommon back in the day).
On the menu this time were the following:
- Scotch Smoked Salmon with Condiments (brown bread, capers, egg white, egg yolk, horseradish and onions)
- Game Pate in Crust with Oxford Sauce
- Cream of Fresh Peas Ninon
- Chicken Consommé with Tortellini
- Roast Rib Eye of Prime Beef
- Grilled Rock Lobster Tails with Herb Butter
- Braised Long Island Duckling with Lemon and Berny Potatoes
- Saffron Rice with Almonds, Buttered Brussel Sprouts, Asparagus Spears Polonaise, Glazed Turned Carrots, Artichoke Hearts
- Tarte Tatin with Brandy Sauce
- Black Cherries Santa Maria
- Chocolate Ice Pralines
- Fresh Fruits
For those who didn’t fancy heading to San Francisco, the same set dinner could be had at the Hyatt in Singapore for S$45, approximately S$100 in today’s money.
What strikes me the most about all this is how heavy everything is- vegetables sautéed in butter, creamy soups, indulgent desserts, a slathering of rich sauces. It all seemed very cloy on the palate, but I suppose it was a product of the time, where French food was seen as the hautest of haute cuisine.
It’s a far cry from the wellness-focused Canyon Ranch menus that Singapore Airlines deploys on its ultra-long haul flights today, which focus on lightening the meal by substituting cream and butter with olive oil, using lighter sauces and alternative starches such as farro, millet, bulgar and freekeh. How times have changed…
The final mention I can find of Hugo’s in the Sky is in September 1981, when it was set to be rolled out the following month on the Tokyo-Los Angeles route.
Travelers with a yen for good food (the Straits Times hasn’t lost its wit) could enjoy Quail Angostura Bitters (?), Crayfish Étouffée, Beef Wellington with Périgueux Sauce, Broiled Lobster Tail, Veal Lion with Apricot or Marinated Tenderloin with Peppercorns. SIA flight stewardesses would also attend evening cocktail services at the Hyatt hotels in Singapore, Tokyo and Los Angeles, although I’m quite sure all they wanted to do was rest after all that flying!
Amazingly, I managed to track down Hans Durst (pictured in the article above), who was Hugo’s Executive Chef at the time. After his stint at the Hyatt Singapore, he went on to open restaurants at the Grand Hyatt Kuwait and Melbourne, and is currently the Chef Proprietor of Giannis Trattoria Group and Sweetwater Mediterranean in Johor Bahru.
Once he got over the shock that some random guy in Singapore was reaching out to him about a 40 year old photo, he shared the following:
“I designed the menu to be served on the Tokyo to Los Angeles route a few months before it began. There were two to three flights a week and I flew the route roughly three times a month, with the other flights handled by the other Hyatt chefs.
We would board at Changi and fly as passengers to Tokyo Narita, after which we did the ground prep at the inflight kitchen based on the First Class load. We’d double check the menu, go through the service sequence and prepare the items accordingly. In those days you could have real knives on board, the big ones you use for slicing beef wellington. We’d carve meat and toss salads in front of the customer.
Tokyo Narita to Los Angeles was a dinner service, and on the return leg we’d do a lunch service. The training was quite intense, but we had lots of energy back then!”
What happened after this, I do not know. There’s no further mention of Hugo’s in the Sky in the press, and presumably Hyatt and Singapore Airlines eventually went their separate ways.
In fact, outside the newspaper archives, it’s virtually impossible to find any evidence that the partnership ever existed. The only thing that turns up on Google is a pair of Hugo’s in the Sky postcards, on sale for US$40 on Amazon.com.
To the best of my knowledge, Singapore Airlines never again partnered up with a restaurant, at least not in the same capacity as with Hugo’s. It now prefers to market its premium cabin catering around people, rather than restaurants- hence the name dropping of Matthew Moran, Sanjeev Kapoor, Suzanne Goin and Yoshihiro Murata in its menus.
But airline-restaurant partnerships are not dead. ANA has Ippudo ramen, EVA Air offers Din Tai Fung, Cathay Pacific had a tie-up with Tosca, the Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. Heck, Japan Airlines served KFC onboard for a time.
No matter how strong an airline’s brand, passengers seem to prefer familiar names when it comes to dining, and who can blame them? They’re already undertaking an extraordinary leap of faith by cramming into a pressurized metal tube, entrusting themselves to the competency of the pilot and the constancy of Bernoulli’s principle.
The least you could give them is some decent food.
Did anyone ever try Hugo’s in the Sky?