Chef Daniel Hulme honed his culinary skills in London’s finest restaurants before catering to the rich and famous onboard luxury yachts. Now, his company On Air Dining aims to elevate the standards on business jets. Dave Spurdens Snr reports.
Top-notch aviation caterer Daniel Hulme, CEO of On Air Dining, experienced some very rough passages in pursuit of his ambition to provide elite culinary creations, from his exclusive kitchens at Stansted Airport.
When London-born Daniel left school at the age of 16 to become an apprentice chef backed by the Conrad Group he found himself working in some of London’s ‘finest dining’ restaurants – like Scotts of Mayfair where celebrities, wealthy businessmen and oligarchs expected the finest fare.
It was a tough, stressful environment but Daniel loved the challenge and knew that as a young chef he was being mentored by the very best and develop the skills that would allow him to work at any level of culinary excellence.
What he didn’t know was that his zest for the best in preparing fine food would take him round the world working on luxury yachts and in the sumptuous mansions of their owners and eventually lead to being founder and CEO of a luxury aviation catering company. All before he reached his mid-30s.
After several years of working in London restaurants Daniel found himself working in a chic bistro in Juan Les Pins in the South of France. Here, his reputation spread amongst the yachting fraternity that frequented the bistro who thought he should consider the highly-paid positions that existed on some of the jaw-dropping yachts anchored in the surrounding marinas.
“The first thing I did was to have a load of CVs printed out,” recalls Daniel. “Then I would get the early train each morning to Monaco, St Tropez, Antibes and Monte Carlo. I just walked around the marinas handing out my CVs to all the big yacht owners or crew and eventually I was taken on by a boat and did a few weeks on charter. I loved it. After that I was head-hunted by a really big yacht with about 12 crew on board and cruised the Med. That was a lot tougher but great fun. They then flew me to the Caribbean and I worked around the British Virgin Islands for a while which was a brilliant experience but very demanding.”
Daniel was totally enamoured with his new life but felt that he needed a break before he took up another yacht position in Singapore, and then Corsica. Through the yacht agency Daniel was then offered a job back in the Caribbean and was flown there in a corporate jet making. It was here that he took mental notes of the standard of food available on the aircraft.
Romance was in the air and Daniel had fallen in love with Isobel, who was soon to become his wife. With his hard-earned spoils from working on the boats and her savings they decided to go travelling and consider their plans for the future.
“When we finished travelling we returned to England but it was too cold for us and we decided to set up a business in Valencia. The Americas Cup was on that year and luckily I won a number of contracts with the Americas Cup Committee and the French and South African teams, catering for functions in their boatsheds. That was good money but the storm clouds of recession were drawing in and with the Americas Cup over I tried to win contracts with Formula 1 teams. The future looked uncertain and our first child had been born so we decided to move back to England”.
“While I was working for the Americas Cup team I decided I might have a go at private and corporate aircraft catering. During my time as a chef on the luxury yachts many other chefs I had met told me they thought the standards of catering in aviation dragged 20 years behind the dishes being conjured up on the high seas. There were loads of swish private planes there owned by big names like Larry Ellison and Ernesto Barterelli so I thought I’d give it a go. I’d done the fancy restaurants, the luxury yachts, the mansions of the yacht owners, so why not give private and business aviation catering a shot?
“My wife and I decided to write a business plan, pulled enough money together and approached Alison Price Catering with the idea of creating an aviation wing. They liked the proposition and Alison Price On Air was born. It lasted four years and I learned a lot.”
Alison Price Catering is still a thriving company in the event field but for Daniel the desire to pursue the image of an elite aviation, culinary masterpieces was as strong as ever and ‘On Air Dining’ was born and acquired premises in central London.
Daniel’s shrewd business acumen knew the premises were not ideal for taking the company forward at his desired speed and fired the search for a better location and a strong business partner prepared to become involved in the running of the business and to provide investment. That person turned out to be Robin Southwell, formerly a senior manager at British Aerospace for 30 years and somebody for whom food and aviation had always been a passion.
“When Robin joined us as chairman I described him as a strong business mentor and investment partner and that is exactly what he has turned out to be,” says Daniel. “We were able to move into the Diamond Hangar at Stansted Airport, a splendid new premises that has been sectioned into several business entities all connected to Private Aviation. We have a wonderfully equipped kitchen and a fine young team of chefs with every appliance needed to provide an elite aviation catering service, develop innovative cutting-edge dishes and stay one step ahead of the competition. Creating new dishes is so important in this business because chefs are very artistic people and unless they face constant challenges you lose them. Fortunately, that is not going to be one of our problems.”
On Air Dining is growing at a brisk pace and from having five clients before moving to Stansted they now have over 100 and their rapid evolution is showing no signs of ‘flaps down’ as they now have greater access to a lucrative slice of the market.
“Being positioned where we are now opens up access to the larger private jet market like the Global Expresses, the BBJs and the Airbuses. We have the operation to supply our existing customers and to provide these larger business jets with a fantastic range of products. It is all very exciting. On Air Dining is taking off at a rate of knots!”