When a trio of paying customers and their astronaut chaperone were blasted off to the International Space Station, their voyage was touted as a milestone for the commercialisation of spaceflight.
For the Michelin-starred Spanish chef José Andrés, however, the recently departed mission ushered in another – albeit more niche – breakthrough: the first time paella was sent into orbit.
“Astronauts from different countries and nationalities and backgrounds – and they are all going to be eating, at once, paella Valenciana,” he said on social media. “And this makes me so proud.”
Andrés is the latest in a string of top chefs around the world who have turned their attention to space food, seeking to push fine dining beyond a frontier long marked by offerings such as dehydrated versions of mac ’n’ cheese or prawn cocktail.
Among the first to pioneer chef-approved space food were the renowned French chefs Thierry Marx and Alain Ducasse, each of whom carved out a repertoire of space-ready classics dishes that ranged from beef bourguignon to almond tarts.
Some of Spain’s top chefs have gone further, seeking to bring their brand of boundary-pushing cuisine into space. Last year, Ángel León of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Aponiente proffered to Nasa a nutrient-dense dish of rice cooked in collagen extracted from fish scales and flavoured with freeze-dried plankton.
Andoni Luis Aduriz of the top-ranked Mugaritz, meanwhile, has sought to recast freeze-dried creations such as a marshmallow-like cauliflower with strawberry cream as the perfect space food, marrying nutrition and functionality while also playing to a sense of taste that can at times be dulled by microgravity conditions.
Aduriz pointed to the commercialisation of space to explain the interest. “Until now, space travel was done by men and women who were very trained to have a spartan spirit and mentally prepared to live in extreme situations,” he said.
With companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic looking to court deep-pocketed passengers, this profile is set to change. “We’re talking about people who will likely not want to do without anything and who will want to eat well,” said Aduriz.
He saw the discussion on space travel as one that would intensify in the coming years. “I’m convinced that our species, especially in the long term, will be spending much more time in space. And they will colonise some spaces,” said Aduriz. “And then food will be an important tool related to the mental health of the people who are there.”
The entry of chefs into an area long dominated by food scientists, however, is far from a seamless transition. The team behind Andrés spent more than a year tweaking the paella and secreto de cerdo y pisto – a cut of Iberian pork with tomatoes, onions, eggplant and peppers – that were sent to space, said Charisse Grey, who leads research and development for the chef’s ThinkFoodGroup.
“Food scientists think a lot about nutrition, they think a lot about calories,” said Grey. “My goal is to meet your palate’s expectations for food.”
The rules were strict; dishes had to be nutritious, survive microbe-killing sterilisation of 121C (252F), and largely avoid the use of free-floating liquids.
“Things that are crumbly, like cookies and chips, won’t make it up there because if there’s little crumbs that come off it while you’re eating, they just float into space and can get caught up in the air filtration systems and create issues,” said Grey.
There was also no escaping the foil-laminated pouch used to serve the meals. “I recall one of my first conversations that I had with Nasa and some of the food scientists … They were, like, ‘You have to let go of the feeling that the food has to look good.’”
While the team had yet to hear any feedback from the crew, Grey said she had been impressed by how the dishes turned out.
“I won’t say that they’re perfect and I won’t say that they’re exactly what you would get out of a paella pan, as you can’t mimic the actual cooking process of the paella pan or the stew process of a pot,” said Grey. “But they’re probably some of the best meals I’ve had out of a pouch.”