GRCC Secchia Institute for Culinary Education team a finalist in NASA competition

May 11, 2020 GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Two Grand Rapids Community College students are competing to serve diners at the most-distant table in the universe: the International Space Station.

Thomas Brown and Victoria Uy are representing GRCC’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, one of 10 teams competing -- selected from 52 schools nationwide -- in the NASA HUNCH Astronaut Culinary Challenge.

Every year, NASA challenges culinary schools to create food items for the astronauts at the International Space Station. This year’s theme was an ethnic dish.

Brown and Uy won the regional preliminary challenge in February with a dish of Indian butternut squash, mango chicken and brown rice.

Uy learned about the competition through her work in the Spectrum Health Culinary Medicine program with Werner Absenger, program director for the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education.

“I never thought that through this program I would ever come this close to a ‘bucket list’ type of goal,” she said. “Dr. Absenger heard me express my aspirations to make food for astronauts, and, within a few weeks, he told me about this opportunity to participate in the NASA HUNCH challenge.

“I didn’t think I would ever compete in a culinary competition, and, with Dr. Absenger’s support, I feel much more confident in my capability to learn -- and also with my skills in the kitchen.”

Absenger, the team’s coach, said the national judging panel -- comprised of Johnson Space Center food lab personnel, industry professionals, astronauts and the International Space Station program office -- will analyze the entries on more than taste.

“The entree must process well for flight and use in microgravity,” Absenger said. “Students also had to prepare and present an ethnic dish that met very specific nutritional requirements in each serving. They had to research the different technology, engineering, and food-processing procedures.” 

Understanding the science involved was challenging, Brown said.

“In microgravity, fluids in astronauts’ bodies will shift, dulling the sense of taste and smell,” he said. “So as a team, we decided a warm spicy dish, such as curry, might replenish those senses.

“Another challenge was the nutritional requirements for the dish. It needed to be between 200 and 400 calories, with less than 250 milligrams of sodium, at least 3 grams of fiber, less than 12 grams of total fat, and less than 3 grams of saturated fat. We learned that eating meals and maintaining proper nutrition for the astronauts in space is vital to the success of the mission.”

Originally, the top 10 teams were to travel to Johnson Space Center in Houston for the final part of the competition. That plan was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic; instead, the teams submitted a paper and a video for judging. The winning entree will be processed by the space center’s food lab and sent to the International Space Station for the astronauts to enjoy. 

“This has been a euphoric experience for me,” Uy said. “I look forward to hearing how we finish in this competition, but making it into the top 10 is already such a great accomplishment so far!”

“It’s amazing the amount of opportunities there are for chefs,” Brown said. “When I entered culinary school, I would have never imagined developing a recipe for NASA. I am so proud of our dish, and even more proud and grateful for my teammate Victoria Uy and Dr. Absenger.” 

A video of the students describing their entry is here. 

Grand Rapids Community College offers learners of all ages opportunities to gain credits for degrees or transfer and in-demand career skills leading to rewarding careers. GRCC was established in 1914 – Michigan’s first community college -- and offers affordable classes on weekdays, evenings, Saturdays and online at locations throughout Kent and Ottawa counties.


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