Feb. 22, 2017
Culinary Students Whip Up Frothy Foods for Space Station
Astronauts are just like everyone – they love desserts.

With that in mind, local high school students recently put their best forks forward to see if their cuisine will reign supreme in space.

Two teams of culinary arts students competed Feb. 16 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in a bid to have their apricot crisp and lavender-scented strawberry honey cream desserts be enjoyed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Langley’s teams are among 25 participating in a national competition to develop recipes for the space station astronauts. The teams, from the New Horizons Regional Education Center in Newport News, Virginia, are battling for a spot in the final 10, which will be announced in mid-March. The finalists will compete April 20 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“These were totally their ideas in what they came up with,” said Tonya Ward, a New Horizons culinary arts instructor. “I was really excited because they’ve been working hard on getting everything together.”

The event was part of the High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) Culinary Pre-Competition.

“HUNCH is such an impactful program allowing students to develop potential food for astronauts brings a new level of interest to these culinary students,” said Tammy Cottee, HUNCH program manager at NASA Langley. “Working with the culinary student this year has been just as inspiring and fun as in years past.”

At the beginning of each school year, NASA reaches out to high school culinary programs to seek interest in the HUNCH Culinary Challenge. If a school is interested, the team must research food science and food processing using web links provided by Johnson. The next step is a brief two-page paper describing what they’ve learned about food processing in microgravity.

“The opportunities HUNCH is providing students is invaluable,” Cottee said. “It’s such an inspiration to see the teams collaborate together to generate creative and innovative ways to solve real-world problems for NASA and ISS.”

Local teams have had previous success in this competition. In 2015, a culinary team from Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia, won the HUNCH Culinary Challenge and had their entrée, Jamaican rice and beans with coconut milk, included in an astronaut cookbook for preflight preparation to the ISS. Phoebus High’s entrée went to the ISS in April 2016.

The New Horizons teams were not only required to make a tasteful dessert but they researched food process and science, especially related to the microgravity environment on the space station, to meet nutritional requirements. Their research and nutritional factor of the dessert were reviewed by a food specialist at Johnson prior to the pre-competition.

“Using a few ingredients, such as lavender and coconut butter, that are non-traditional indicates the students were thinking out of the box and researching ingredients that would add flavor and pizzazz,” Cottee said.

A panel of six Langley taste testers judged during the pre-competition and rated the desserts on a scale of 1-9 based on appearance, color, smell, flavor and texture.

One of those judges, Steven Francisco, is the general manager of the Langley cafeteria. He praised the efforts of the students, though he did give them some tips given the time he had with them.

“I gave them a few pointers from a fine dining point of view,” he said.

Francisco, who has worked with previous HUNCH culinary students, said the fun for him is watching a student reach an eye-opening moment.

“To do this job as a career it not only takes an ability to cook, it also takes much more to be successful,” he said. “When a truly gifted student comes by watching them grow and go on with their career, it’s very gratifying.”

This was the second year that New Horizons Regional Education Center culinary teams have participated in the HUNCH Culinary Challenge, which was developed in 2014 to provide high school students the opportunity to design and create a new flavorful food for astronauts on board the ISS.

One team of culinary students from New Horizons Regional Education Center created an apricot crisp dessert for the judges.
One team of culinary students from New Horizons Regional Education Center created an apricot crisp dessert for the judges.
Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman
Last year, a New Horizons team made the final 10 and went to Johnson, but came up short.

One team of culinary students created a lavender-scented strawberry honey cream dessert for the judges.
One team of culinary students from New Horizons Regional Education Center created a lavender-scented strawberry honey cream dessert for the judges.
Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman
“It was pretty eye-opening,” said Aleta Luther, who is the team leader for the strawberry honey cream squad, which had six members. “We found and researched so much information that it was quite astounding.”

The senior, who attends Grafton High School in Yorktown, Virginia, was part of a team that did not come out on top last year.

“We were a bit unprepared last year coming into the competition,” she said, adding that her team did not bring as much information and kitchen tools on their trip to Houston to due space and time constraints. “We have found new ways to send our information down (to Houston) to have everything we need. We will be prepared going into this competition.”

While Luther was looking to improve upon last year’s effort, a fellow New Horizons student and first-time competitor was aiming to absorb as much culinary information as he could.

“This program was really interesting to me because I love the thought process in making a dish that it suitable to go into space to feed our astronauts,” said John Moore, a member of the apricot crisp team, which had seven members.

The junior, who attends Warhill High School in Williamsburg, Virginia, has eaten freeze-dried products and MREs (meals ready to eat) “and they don’t taste too great and I’m intrigued in making a dish that is very powerful and flavorful,” he said.

Luther and Moore’s teams had a bit of a rivalry in the taste-testing event, touting their respective dishes in friendly terms.

“We believe that our dish in not only healthy, it also benefits you in so many different ways,” Luther said. “All together it actually balances out quite well.”

Moore was equally complimentary of his team’s offering and in knocking his competition down a peg.

“It’s simple. It tastes, in my opinion, amazing,” he said. “Presentation-wise, I feel ours pops more, the color is more vibrant and appealing to our judges.”

The culinary students have diverse goals after high school. Luther has been accepted to Johnson & Wales University to pursue a career in event planning.

“Ever since I was little I’ve been cooking with my grandmother and my parents,” she said. “It’s been a natural want and desire to recreate everything that you see on TV – the fancy dishes with the chocolate that seems to defy gravity in many shapes and forms.”

Moore wants to use the skills he learned cooking 18th-century food at Colonial Williamsburg in the workforce or in college.

“I want to combine my experience with that plus future knowledge of other cultures and to bring something new to the table,” he said.

Win or lose, the students gained invaluable first-hand knowledge in culinary theory, preparation and nutrition from experienced and passionate mentors.

“It’s awesome to witness the dedication and success the students have in their project,” Cottee said. “The NASA mentors that support each HUNCH project are great role models for the students.”

For more information about the HUNCH Culinary Challenge, click here.
View a photo gallery of the HUNCH events at Langley by clicking here.
A team of culinary students from New Horizons Regional Education Center faces the judges for their dessert.
A team of culinary students from New Horizons Regional Education Center faces the judges for their dessert.
Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman
Eric Gillard
NASA Langley Research Center
Last Updated: Feb. 22, 2017
Editor: Eric Gillard
Tags: International Space Station (ISS), Langley Research Center