On Friday 23 April, four astronauts will be rocketed towards the International Space Station (ISS) by Elon Musk's SpaceX. Among them will be Thomas Pesquet, the first-ever French astronaut to serve as commander. For this, his second trip, he will be taking a few specially designed dishes with him, created by Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx, and physical chemistry researcher and professor at 'le Centre Français d'Innovation Culinaire (CFIC)' Raphaël Haumont. Together they are developing the cuisine of the future.
The duo recently appeared as guests on the Quotidien show, where they explained the painstaking work and constraints behind preparing gourmet dishes intended to be enjoyed in space.
Cooking is Chemistry
While Haumont concentrated on the transformation of raw materials, Marx focused on the recipes, the taste and the emotions that a dish could provide, drawing on his knowledge of molecular cuisine.
“Back when I really got into this, it was criticised. It was seen by many as a departure from the world of gastronomy, whereas I saw it more as a toolbox allowing us to better understand a number of product transformation mechanisms. Thanks to that, I was able to get closer to the world of science." Without going too deep into the science, the chef also recalls that the simple cooking of an egg, which changes from a transparent liquid to a solid white state after a few minutes in water, is a chemical process.
This data served the chef and the researcher well, because designing dishes that will be consumed in space brings its share of constraints, starting with Pesquet's ageusia or loss of taste. "In space, you don't taste, it's as if you have a cold. Suddenly, you have to reveal the flavours without using any flavour enhancer," explains Marx. There's no question of adding powdered spices either, because no dust should be added to the preparations. "We developed a pepper water with cymes pepper in the laboratory. It's a process which allows the maximum extraction of flavours and their recovery in a liquid state," says Haumont.
Space Cake: Hold the Sugar
Marx also had to create dishes without too much salt, fat and sugar. "You have to see astronauts as high-level sportsmen," explains the chef. "Thomas will be confined up there for six months and weight gain is not an option." Marx has revisited an almond cake accordingly, making it without sugar. After many experiments, Haumont found the solution by working on fruit pectins. "We will cook orange peel to release the pectins, which have a gelling action in jams, before adding water rich in calcium. By mixing the two materials, we obtain a texture close to that of a marmalade, instant and sugar-free. It's a perfect binder for sugar-free cakes, "says the researcher. "It is also a jam that can be eaten by a diabetic," adds Marx.
Finding suitable containers for the dishes was also not an easy task because Pesquet cannot afford to accumulate plastic waste on the ISS. Various dishes, such as beef cooked for seven hours with "pasteurised and over-pasteurised" mushrooms, will be stored in cans from the Breton company Hénaff, now a specialist in the subject.
Haumont also reflected on the design of plastic-free packaging for liquids. "We studied biomimicry. In nature, tomatoes have a very thin membrane, made up of 95% water, that protects the interior. We are not far from a bottle of water in the end, with natural packaging. Today, we are modestly trying to reproduce what nature does, with algae and pectins. We have succeeded in encapsulating 33cl of water in a vegetal membrane, which is entirely biodegradable and which can even be consumed," explains Haumont.
It's research that will be useful for astronauts, but which could also revolutionise our consumption patterns here on Earth.
What's on the Michelin-Starred Space Menu?
- Potato and roscoff onion cakes with truffles
- Seven-hour slow-cooked beef with a cèpe sauce
- Almond tart with caramelised pears
- An experimental recipe made with freeze-dried cherry tomatoes.