Culinary Students

Batavia CTE Center students reach finals of NASA culinary competition

By Ted Goldberg - Batavia

Published 4:00 PM ET May 3, 2021

BATAVIA, N.Y. — Three student cooks in Batavia are dealing with a problem given by NASA: how do you cook comfort food that stays under 400 calories per serving? How about fewer than 12 grams of fat?

What You Need To Know

  • Three students at the Genesee Valley BOCES Batavia campus have reached the top ten of a cooking competition hosted by NASA
  • Isaiah Merrell, Alexa Wolcott and Sara Logsdon are competing to give NASA the best comfort-food recipe that fits strict parameters for nutrition
  • Merrell, Wolcott and Logsdon have worked on their sweet potato shepherd’s pie recipe since November under the tutelage of Chef Tracy Burgio, the Culinary Arts instructor at the Genesee Valley BOCES Batavia Campus

“It’s incredible that NASA sets these strict guidelines,” says Isaiah Merrell, a senior at Byron-Bergen Central School. “With these fresh seasonings that we’re using, it really helps it drive away the salt and the fat.”

The NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge pits students at the Genesee Valley BOCES Batavia Campus against nine other high school teams nationwide, all competing to see which healthy recipe for comfort food will be picked to feed astronauts in space.

Their recipe for sweet potato shepherd's pie must fit precise nutritional standards: each serving cannot exceed 400 calories, 250 milligrams of sodium, or 12 grams of fat.

“When I realized we were only at 3.02 grams of saturated fat, we could add some butter! I was doing a little happy dance, running in the kitchen,” Merrell says with a smile.

The nutritional requirements are necessary for two reasons: digestion works differently in space, and the finished product has to withstand the deep-freeze process necessary for sending food into space.

The Culinary Arts team at the Batavia Career and Technical Education Center (CTE) picked sweet potato shepherd's pie partly to reflect their Western New York heritage.

“We’re in the wintertime most of the time in Western New York,” says Wolcott. “Something warm, comfort, flavorful, but also pretty easy to whip up.”

This recipe is five months in the making, with plenty of tweaks along the way. Merrell says figuring out the seasonings took some time, after their first batch came out "awful."

“The pepper and paprika were so overpowering, so we decided not to use it. We were like ‘what can we do to add earthy flavors?’”  

That’s where the herbs come in, along with ground turkey for less fat, and sweet potatoes for sweetness (each serving must have fewer than eight grams of sugar).

This is the fourth straight year students at Genesee Valley BOCES have entered this competition, and this year's recipe is the first to crack NASA’s top 10.

“I know it means the world to them that we’ve been considered for top-10, and to qualify for the top 10,” says Merrell. “Our mindset is that we’re going to win, and that’s the mindset we’ve had.”

The winner will be announced on Thursday.

The link to this story can be found here