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What Happens When Gastronomy Meets Astronomy?

April 12, 2024, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Have you ever thought about how astronauts eat? Not just how they consume food in a zero gravity environment, but what is in their meals? 

Chef Jenn Struik is a faculty member with the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. She teaches courses such as food science, and nutrition and menu planning. She has her own business offering weekly meal prep, private in-home dining experiences, cooking classes, restaurant consulting and more. 

For the last two years, she has also been coaching teams of high school students for the NASA HUNCH Challenge. In this challenge, teams develop recipes that can be served to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Students create new dishes around a theme, taking into account food processing procedures and nutritional requirements so that their items will meet the standards of the NASA Johnson Space Center Food Lab. 

“Sending food into space is not as easy as it seems,” she said. “There are a lot of limitations. For example, some foods – like bread - can’t travel in space. Astronauts need healthy meals with the right combination of fiber, calories, and sodium. Not surprisingly, they also would like something that tastes good!”  

Last year, Chef Jenn and Werner Absenger, program director for the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, coached two teams all the way to the HUNCH Challenge finals. Students from CareerLine Tech Center competed in the meal challenge, and students from Kent Career Technical Center took on the edible packaging challenge.

 “We spent about seven months perfecting a recipe for Austrian Steak Soup and plans for edible cargo boxes,” Struik said. “These students invested so much time, but the hard work paid off. Both teams made it to the Top 10 and went to Johnson Space Center in Houston for the final competition. For me, the exciting part is that these students are exposed to a myriad of food-related careers. You don’t have to be a restaurant chef to find a fulfilling career in food.”  

This summer, Chef Jenn is also headed to Kentucky’s Morehead State University to participate in SpaceTrek. SpaceTrek is a two-week space systems engineering residential summer program for 9th –12th grade girls. She will speak about food science and share her NASA HUNCH Challenge experiences.

 “Nutrition information has changed significantly,” she said. “I want to help students understand how to navigate this essential knowledge for whatever career they have in mind.”   

While in Kentucky, Chef Jenn is also leveraging a connection she made through another one of her exploits: a 2023 appearance on Food Network’s “Chopped.” 

“Let me tell you…the pressure is real!” she said. “The show is not staged. You really don’t know what ingredients are in your basket until you open it up.” 

 Viewers familiar with the show may think the ingredients are the hard part, but Chef Jenn would argue differently.

 “The hardest thing for me was cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen,” she recalled. “You’re under tremendous time pressure, and don’t know where anything is or how the equipment may differ from your own. I was ultimately “chopped” in the final round but it was a great experience and I met some amazing people.” 

Now Chef Jenn and Chef Brittani Ratcliff, one of her “Chopped” cohort members, will be joining forces to conduct a food science workshop and do some pop-up cooking at Sawstone Brewing Company while visiting Kentucky. 

“I hope we sell a lot of food!” she said. While the publicity and the travel are fun, that’s not the lure for Chef Jenn. 

“I’m so proud to say that I’m a GRCC culinary school graduate,” she said. “I get to introduce GRCC and culinary careers to students around the country. I hope students see that there are a wealth of careers in this field.”

This story was reported by Julie Hordyk

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