NASA Astronaut Culinary Challenge

Judges test quesadillas made by Eastside High in the NASA Astronaut Culinary Challenge.

Eastside High competed to add a little spice to an astronaut’s meal in space.

A team of students participated in Friday’s regional semifinals for the NASA Astronaut Culinary Challenge, which took place at the school. Up until mid-March, 36 nationwide teams — including Eastside’s — will cook their space-ready dish in front of panels of judges, vying for a plane ticket to Austin, Texas, for the national competition on April 15. 

The competition is under NASA HUNCH, a program in which high school students compete against each other to solve real problems that space programs face. The winner will have their recipe added to the meal index that astronauts choose from to fuel their next interstellar voyage.

Eastside High was originally going to present its self-titled “Tacos In Space” dish, but the entrée took a quick turnaround.

Eastside culinary instructor Pamela Bedford said the students had to change their initial recipe to a quesadilla dish for the sake of practicality.

“You can’t have sauce in space, which is a real problem for tacos,” she said. “NASA also doesn’t like any crunchy foods because they create so many crumbs that just float around.”

Eastside High’s Institute of Culinary Arts program competed against Nature Coast Technical High School from Brooksville and International Studies Preparatory Academy from Miami, which have all been preparing their recipes since October.

Over the span of two hours, the teams completed their dishes and served them to the judges, who scored the entrees on taste, texture, aroma and appearance. 

The three teams’ dishes consisted of the quesadillas, a couscous and pork meal and a vegan spinach entree, respectively.

The cook-off had a panel of 11 judges from the American Culinary Federation. During the first round of the competition in October, each team submitted an essay on microgravity and its own recipes to NASA. 

Out of this round’s 36 teams competing in their own regional semifinals, only 10 will advance to the national competition, said Jacqui Pressinger, organizer of the cook-off and the director of strategic partnerships of the culinary federation.

The competition was significant in regards to societal changes that will impact the future of space travel, said Darin Nine, a judge of the competition and culinary instructor at Marion Technical College.

“We have to start thinking what [food] we’re going to start sending with colonists to Mars — that’s a one-way trip,” Nine said. “Astronauts used to only be middle-aged males and the trend is now shifting to young females, and nutrition needs to change with that.”