When a trio of paying customers and their astronaut chaperone were sent to the International Space Station, their trip was touted as a milestone in the commercialization of spaceflight.
For 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, nationalities and backgrounds – and they are all going to eat, at the same time, Valencian paella,” he said on social media. “And that makes me so proud.”
Andrés is the latest in a series of top chefs from around the world who have turned to space cuisine, seeking to push gastronomy beyond a boundary long marked by offerings such as dehydrated versions of mac and cheese or shrimp cocktail.
Among the early pioneers of chef-approved space cuisine, famed French chefs Thierry Marx and Alain Ducasse have each created a repertoire of classic space-ready dishes ranging from beef bourguignon to almond tarts.
Some of Spain’s top chefs have gone further, looking to bring their brand of boundary-pushing cuisine into the space. Last year, Ángel León of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Aponiente presented NASA with a nutrient-rich rice dish cooked in collagen extracted from fish scales and flavored with freeze-dried plankton.
Andoni Luis Aduriz of the top-ranked Mugaritz, meanwhile, sought to recast freeze-dried creations such as marshmallow-like cauliflower with strawberry cream as the perfect space food, marrying nutrition and functionality while playing on a sense of taste that can sometimes be dulled by the microgravity conditions.
Aduriz pointed to the commercialization of space to explain the interest. “Until now, space travel has been done by highly trained men and women with Spartan minds and mentally prepared to live in extreme situations,” he said.
With companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic looking to woo deep-pocketed passengers, that profile is about to change. “We’re talking about people who probably won’t want to go without anything and want to eat well,” Aduriz said.
He saw the space travel discussion as one that would intensify in the years to come. “I am convinced that our species, especially in the long term, will spend much more time in space. And they will colonize certain spaces,” Aduriz said. “And then food will be an important tool related to the mental health of the people in it.”
The entry of chefs into a field long dominated by food scientists is far from a smooth transition, however. The team behind Andrés spent over a year fine-tuning the paella and secreto de cerdo y pisto — a cut of Iberian pork with tomatoes, onions, eggplant and peppers — that were sent into space, said Charisse Gray, who leads research and development for the chef’s ThinkFoodGroup.
“Food scientists think a lot about nutrition, they think a lot about calories,” Gray said. “My goal is to meet your palate’s food expectations.”
The rules were strict; dishes had to be nutritious, survive microbe-killing sterilization at 121C (252F), and largely avoid the use of floating liquids.
“Things that are crumbly, like cookies and chips, won’t make it because if there are little crumbs that come off of them while you’re eating, they just float around in space and can get stuck. in air filtration systems and create problems,” Gray said.
There was also no escaping the foil laminated pouch used to serve meals. “I remember one of my first conversations I had with Nasa and some of the food scientists… They were, like, ‘You have to let go of the feeling that food has to be beautiful.'”
While the team had yet to hear feedback from the crew, Gray said she was impressed with how the dishes turned out.
“I won’t say they’re perfect and I won’t say they’re exactly what you would get from a paella pan because you can’t mimic the actual cooking process of the paella pan or the process of one pot stew,” Gray said. “But those are probably some of the best meals I’ve had in a pocket.”