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Redefining In-Flight Catering

Laura Cueto Estrella – South Florida Corporate Flight Attendant

This week we have the honor of sharing with you an interview with a multi-talented corporate flight attendant, Laura Cueto Estrella, who is also a chef and a sommelier. Read on to learn more about Laura, her experiences and her tips for visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Which aircraft have you flown on during your career?

  • Gulfstream 200, III, IV, 450, V, 550, 650
  • Falcon 2000, Falcon 7X
  • Challenger 300, 650
  • Global Express
  • Citation Excel, Citation Sovereign

Where did you receive flight attendant training?

I’ve trained at FlightSafety International in Teterboro, New Jersey and Savannah, Georgia; as well as at Executive Jet Management in Ohio.

When was your last recurrent?

In 2015 at FlightSafety International in Savannah, Georgia.

What is your base locations and ICAOs?

Palm Beach International (KPBI), Fort Lauderdale Executive (KFXE), Fort Lauderdale International (KFLL), Miami International (KMIA)

How have you been a corporate flight attendant?

5 years.

Have you received any awards / industry scholarships?

I was an honor student at Le Cordon Bleu and I received a scholarship from the United States Sommelier Association – for the Sommelier Certification Course.

Aside from your corporate flight attendant training, what other education do you have?

Associates in Science Le Cordon Bleu – Culinary Arts, USA

Certified Advance Sommelier – United States Sommelier Association, USA

University of Legal and Social Sciences – Law degree, Argentina

Which languages are you fluent in?

I am fluent in English, Spanish and Italian. I understand, write and speak some French.

Which business aviation conventions and trade shows do you attend?

NBAA, EBACE, Sun & Fun, Oshkosh and the Stuart Airshow.

What has been your most memorable flight?

Well, that’s hard to answer because there have been many. But, I would say a flight for three weeks with VIP passengers that were a pleasure to work for; they were appreciative and grateful. We stopped by every major city in Europe for a couple of days and finished with four days in Croatia. The catering on that trip had to be vegan and it took me a lot of logistics, but the experience I acquired and the places we visited were very memorable.

What types of cuisine do you prefer?

Being a chef, I have a passion for food; everywhere I go I am checking where the locals eat and what are the restaurants to try out. In general, I prefer Mediterranean cuisine, Latin dishes and French Patisserie.

My clientele mostly requests organic and healthy meals, staying away from processed foods and refined sugars. That is what my current specialty is, and it also became my personal diet.

What are your favorite destinations, and why?

That’s a hard question! I love to travel, therefore I have visited amazing places and met beautiful people almost everywhere. But, I would say that my favorite place to go back to is Italy, because of the warm and friendly people and the traditions. Italian food is simple and delicious, and prepared with fresh ingredients. The wine is excellent and every part of Italy has its own fascinating history. There is so much to see and new things to try, every time I go there, I get a new experience.

What are your favorite restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico?

OCEANO – Located on the beach, the restaurant has an amazing view, which creates a delightful ambiance. The dishes are Caribbean inspirations with tropical flavors, lots of seafood, very good quality and exceptional presentation. 15 minutes from Isla Grande Airport, TJIG.
RAICES – Traditional Puerto Rican restaurant. Delicious local dishes, Spanish flavors, great quality. The ambiance reflects the local culture. A truly Puerto Rican food experience. Located in Viejo San Juan, also 10 minutes from TJIG. They take orders for pick up.
SILK – Asian Cuisine, Japanese, Chinese, Sushi fusion, special rolls with traditional ingredients. Great quality and presentation. Located in San Juan, minutes from the airport and walking distance from the Doubletree Hilton in San Juan. They take orders for pick up.

What are some things to do that you would suggest for a corporate flight attendant visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico for the first time?

OLD SAN JUAN – Or Viejo San Juan, is the old city, beautiful architecture and stores in downtown to walk around for hours.

CASTILLO SAN CRISTOBAL – Located in Old San Juan, historic place and landmark.

CAMPO RICO ZIPLINING ADVENTURE – It is far away from the city, but almost every hotel has shuttles.

NIGHT KAYAKING INTO LAGUNA GRANDE – You will see Glowing Waters during the night tour. There are also kayaking day tours.

EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST – Tour for the whole day. Amazing views, connection with nature, relaxing.

Any cultural tips for a corporate flight attendant visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico for the first time?

Hopefully, you will go to Million Air San Juan FBO, located at Isla Grande Executive Airport (TJIG), it is one of the best FBOs that I have visited. Their employees strive to provide an excellent service and they will go the extra mile to help you, I highly recommend them. They can arrange private transportation as well as rental cars, they will drive you in a crew car to pick items up close to the airport, if you need something at the last minute.

Spanish is the common language, but everyone speaks English as well. The culture is Latin, Spanish, people are very friendly and caring, do not hesitate to ask for directions. Currency is US Dollars.

Prior departure the USDA will inspect your aircraft (Agriculture), and they will be looking for food, flowers, animals, etc. that you might be taking out of the country, if they find any, they will throw it away and fine you. Catering taken from the island has to be specially prepared and specially wrapped.

What are some in-flight catering challenges you have experienced?
How did you overcome them?

Placing the catering order over the phone can be challenging because the person on the other side may be new or may understand something different and then I wouldn’t receive what I requested. That’s why I try as much as I can to place orders by e-mail and always request a quote first. I have had some large charges for simple cheap items like milk, so I learned a valuable lesson.

If I have to place an order over the phone, I ask them to fax the quote to the hotel, that way I can see what the items are with the pricing and I can still make corrections if necessary.

Portions differ a lot from country to country. In the United States, caterers’ portions are like restaurants portions, while in other places, for example in Europe, the portions are much smaller. They might be so small that I may need more sides or more appetizers. I always ask for the container’s size in ounces or grams, in order to have an idea of the quantity.

Is important to order the type of containers needed to reheat the food onboard and always ask to separate the protein from the sides. I ask to pack everything separately. Once I received a ribeye steak medium-rare in the same tray as the mashed potatoes, and the blood from the steak ruined the mashed potatoes.

If I don’t know the passenger’s preferences, I order always the red meats rare to medium-rare, so I can finish cooking them onboard but it won’t get dry and overcooked.

I try to be at the airport two or more hours before the flight so I can check the catering and if anything is not correct, or the caterer forgot to send any of the items, I can call the caterer and there is still time to deliver it. It happens a lot that they forget to pack something but it’s on the invoice.

What made you decide to become a corporate flight attendant?

I have always traveled. I visited a lot of places before becoming a corporate flight attendant and I love providing high-end customer service. Cooking, plating dishes and wine pairing is what I do with pleasure and love. When I found out that corporate flight attendants have to cook and order food and wine and stock the airplane, I knew it was perfect for me. This profession allows me to work in a business that I love, and I can travel the world at the same time.

What do you feel are essential skills for a successful corporate flight attendant?

In my opinion the essential skills are:

  • Knowledge of your safety equipment on the airplane, as well as completed first aid and CPR training.
  • Experience in delivering high-end customer service, poses excellent manners and always acts as a true professional.
  • Knowledge of food from around the world, different types of diets and food restrictions. It is very important to know about food handling and cross-contamination.
  • Advanced knowledge of wine and spirits is a plus.
  • Professional appearance and formal dress code is a must, you represent the crew and the aircraft owners.
  • Ability to solve any issues and make the best out of last minute changes. Solve issues in a calm manner is important because there are always changes: departure times, amount of passengers, stops or destinations, flying times, departure and catering alterations. We deal with changes all the time.
  • Organization skills and being proactive is very useful, especially with the small compartments in the galley and the amount of food and beverages that we are always traveling with.
  • Professional communication skills with the crew and the ability to not take things personal and work as a team.

What advice would you give someone looking to become a corporate flight attendant?

This is a very rewarding profession but requires a lot of sacrifices too sometimes. For example, you spend a lot of time away from home, and there are always changes in departure or arrival time, shopping and re-stocking the airplane prior to the flight and cleaning and organizing the airplane after the flight.

You have to love customer service and need to love to take care of people, you will cater for them or cook onboard, take care of them when they are sick and try to accommodate their requests.

Preferably have some previous experience in VIP customer service or take some etiquette classes before going on a flight.

Get training at a reputable training school, the money is well invested and will pay itself back on job opportunities.

Network with everyone you meet; this industry is very small and everyone knows or has heard of someone. The best jobs I have done came from recommendations. A good reputation goes a long way!

What email address should be used to contact you?

chefestrella@gmail.com

This article is part of a series of interviews we are conducting with corporate cabin crew members. If you would like to be considered for an interview, which is posted on our blog and all of our social media accounts, please contact socialmedia@airculinaire.com.

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