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​We Interviewed a Space Chef

Olive oil, Italian chocolate, and balsamic vinegar.

by Antonella Di Biase
Dec 5 2014, 10:00am

​Stephano Polato. Image: 

Almost everyone of us has traveled 400 km or so from home and suffered some form of culinary troubles, or even just the melancholy for the soya noodles of the Chinese restaurant that used to satisfy our cravings in our teenage years.

Only a few of us, though, have experienced the thrill of living 431 km above home, where there is no chance of improvising a trip to satisfy our appetite alternatively. 

The ISS is inhabited by a bunch of astronauts who float around watching Earth from a distance, but can't eat what their stomach demands.

In the times of Jurij Gagarin, the first human to journey to space in 1961, eating in orbit meant swallowing some kind of nutritious mush from a tube that resembled the one we still use for toothpaste. And before he consumed the first meal in space, there was no certainty that the absence of gravity would have allowed him to swallow without suffocating. There were complaints from the first guinea pigs—John Glenn swore that the beef mush that was given to him was truly inedible. The problem with the edibility of space food has been resolved through time and reached its peak with cases like the floating M&Ms that made all the astronauts of the space shuttle real happy in 1981.

At the moment, the ISS food resemble an archive of plastic documents placed on a wall in alphabetical order. There are some freeze-dried meals that are only waiting for a few drops of hot water to come back to life or to be thermostabilized in a portable microwave.

The cocktail of freeze-dried shrimps seems to be the top choice, followed by semi-dehydrated tortillas filled with any desired topping, and the evergreen M&M's.

Astronaut Loren J. Shriver on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Image: NASA

Compared to the era of the 'toothpaste' meals, today's food is light years away. There is so much difference from back then that astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti decided to initiate a campaign on the importance of eating healthy food, even in orbit. With the hope of eating some healthy space food, we contacted Samantha's cook, Stefano Polato, and talked about space coffee, restaurants across the universe, and '​Avamposto42', the blog that narrates the culinary adventures of Samantha's team.

Motherboard: The company you work for, Argotec, is the official supplier of bonus food for the ISS. "Bonus food" means extra food, as opposed to the standard fare?

Stefano Polato: It's the food for big occasions, the personal food of every astronaut. Let's say that each one of them has the entire Russian and American pantry at their disposal—that resembles the old K ration. And then they have my bonus food on a weekly basis. Recently, we sent 11 bonus food containers, but they won't last for the entire six month period.

You are Samantha Cristoforetti's personal chef. Does every astronaut have a personal chef?

Technically yes. Including every astronaut's personal chef, the people from Argotec, including myself, also deal with the research process. I already worked for a big company that distributes food; this offered me a discrete expertise in the area. It was a way to continue on a path I was already covering, and in addition to that, I got a chance to work with Samantha.

Is the food already assembled?

No, Samantha's idea is to combine pre-assembled food (rice or pasta to heat up) to separated ingredients to personalize/customize the recipes. This is a novelty. We supplied Samantha with an actual food supply: she will be able to combine the ingredients according to her tastes, to create a personalized menu.

Are there any other novelties in the food arena?

We placed particular attention to Samantha's physical health. We worked side by side with an expert nutritionist, Filippo Ongaro, with whom we planned her menu. The aim is to try and confront the problems that astronauts face; to contain/control cellular aging, for example, we used a lot of antioxidants. The crucial aspect was to guarantee the right amount of nutritional substances: proteins mostly, but also fiber. That's why we used a lot of whole grain cereals.

The food we provide has to give energy for longer periods of time and shouldn't be burned immediately, like in the case of refined cereals. The initial idea was to give her food that allowed her to face any activity she had to accomplish in the best way.

The coffee maker made by Argotec in collaboration with Lavazza. Image: Argotec

What about the cooking techniques?

We used thermostabilization that starts with vacuum-sealed cooking at a low temperature. Some restaurants 'on Earth' also use this technique, as it preserves the food's flavours and colors. Another avantgarde process in the gastronomy/cookery domain is freeze-drying, a technique that allows to safeguard every nutritional value: you place an ingredient at -80 degrees and then you raise it up again, in a sterile environment with no air, so that water can sublime from its solid state to get to its gaseous one. Once all the water has been sucked in, the food becomes dry and dense.

If someone wanted to cook some pasta in the ISS, he or she wouldn't be able to boil the water because it would spread around everywhere... right?

Yes. Also, the maximum parameter for temperature dictated by NASA is 80 degrees. If any liquid were to disperse in the station, the astronauts would risk serious burns and damages to the machineries if the temperature went beyond 80 degrees. We played a lot on combined pressure, trying to get to 80 degrees nevertheless. The extremely high pressure compensates those 20 degrees that the temperature is missing when boiling in outer space.

What about coffee? Can you drink it in a glass?

No, they get to drink it in a pouch, a bag with a straw and a valve. The coffee machine makes expresso in bags, but technically it functions just like the ones we have on Earth.

The greatest novelty in the latest missions is their relevance on the internet and on social networks. You guys from Samantha's team grasped this occasion to initiate a campaign to raise awareness on the importance of healthy food. How did you come up with this idea?

Ever since we met, Samantha expressly asked me for quality food that could raise awareness on the concept of healthy food. 'Avamposto 42' is a blog where we narrate our adventure with space food, grasping the occasion to touch on important issues that also involve terrestrial food habits. We appeal to the principles and values of the "slow food" movement.

Number 42 comes from Douglas Adams? Have you read "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe"?

Yes, Samantha and I met thanks to that story. From then on, I read every one of them. I find it a coincidence because 42 was also the number of her mission… everything seemed to flow in the same directions so we came up with the idea of Avamposto42. Samantha is very close to that number.

Image: Argotec

I read on Avamposto42 that the food for Samantha was also created to be shared among her colleagues. Why is that?

We wanted to give importance to the notion of sharing in addition to the one of nutrition. We see it as an occasion to leave behind the idea of nutrition as an end in itself... [We created] meals that could represent the Italian tradition—olive oil, Italian chocolate, balsamic vinegar from Modena. We wanted it to be shared among the whole space crew.

The sense of taste and the sense of smell change in space?

The answer to this question varies: some say they couldn't taste salt and sugar, others claim that they didn't feel any change at all. We will find out when Samantha will reach outer space. However, we played a lot with tastes, with spices, we exaggerated a bit sometimes. Eating tasty and variated food is important also for your mood.

At the science museum in New York they sell bags of astronaut food. Does Argotec suggest similar ideas?

On the 23rd of October, we opened an e-commerce website where we also sell these products. We are in the European Space Agency centres of every country in Europe, and in shops. The applications of our knowledge on long-life foods are vast, we are able to supply food for extreme activities of various kinds, not just for space. For example, we supplied spelaeologists in the ESA Caves project and we will also have Alex Bellini as a client, an adventurer who will climb an iceberg.

Would you like to cook directly in the ISS one day? Have you already thought of how to make up for the absence of gravity?

It would be amazing. Well, a lot of research should be done. But the idea fascinates me. All the physical dynamics would change: the sense of cold here on Earth tends towards the bottom. Up there, we don't find the shapes we have here. For example, a drop. It would be a radically new form of cookery/gastronomy.

If you could choose an ideal place to work in, would you pick the ISS?

Yes, of course. I always strive for space. 

This article was translated from ​Motherboard Italia.

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