Ypsi culinary students rack up honors, including chance to cook for astronauts

Having beat out teams from across the U.S., a team of four Ypsilanti Community High School students is among the top 10 in the NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge.
Cooking for astronauts is quite a challenge. Meals must be nutritious and delicious while also having low sodium and absolutely no crumbs. But, for four Ypsilanti students who are part of Ypsilanti's Regional Career Technical Center (RCTC) culinary arts program, it's a piece of cake. 

The students, who have made it into the top 10 of teams from across the U.S. in the NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge, are Aegan Safa Blanc, 17; Shamiyah Payne, 16; Kadiatou Kaba, 16; and Zahanath Junu, 17.  They will present a menu that includes jerk chicken tamales, roasted veggies, and a dessert to astronauts April 13 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) students have qualified for $12,000 in college scholarships just by making it to the top 10. Members of the winning team will each win a full-ride scholarship to Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky. Sullivan is home to the National Center for Hospitality Studies.

"It is a long, complicated process to get to where we are, in the top 10 in the United States," says Chef Aaron Gaertner, the RCTC culinary instructor. 

A number of Ypsilanti-area students submitted essays for the challenge in October, competing against students from hundreds of schools across the nation. Gaertner and a science teacher from YCHS chose the top four essays from Ypsi-area students to form the current team. 
Ypsilanti's Regional Career Technical Center culinary instructor Chef Aaron Gaertner.
The four girls wrote another, longer essay and then had to write recipes based on "extremely strict nutrition standards," Gaertner says. 

"The biggest challenge was getting the food to taste delicious and being able to sit within those parameters," Gaertners says. "Plus, astronauts only have a spoon to eat. That's because they don't want anything sharp and pokey floating around."

They sent out two menu options and received word right after winter break that one of their menus had made the top 10 in the nation. Even after being ranked in the top 10, they also had to find a regional competition to participate in. Competing against two other regional teams in Grand Rapids, the Ypsi team won.

Since then, the team has been fundraising for the trip, including a special event at Real Seafood Co. in Ann Arbor and a dine-to-donate fundraiser at Aubree's Pizzeria in Depot Town.

Kaba, a junior at YCHS, calls the chance to cook at Johnson Space Center "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Student Kadiatou Kaba at the RCTC culinary arts program.
"Not everybody gets to do this, so I'm really excited. Not a day in my life did I think I'd ever be close to astronauts, and now I'm cooking for them," she says.

Chef Gaertner is equally excited, saying he expects to "geek out" at Johnson Space Center.

"I'm hoping to get to see the original mission control room. It's identical to what it was in the Apollo era, " Gaertner says. "I want to sit in the same seat [former NASA Chief Flight Director] Gene Kranz sat in for the Apollo missions."

Junu, a senior and the team's mission commander, says it's her responsibility to take care of the team, both emotionally and practically, as they prepare for the trip.

"It's about helping to find solutions to problems that arise within the team or in the cooking process," Junu says. 
RCTC culinary arts program student Zahanath Junu.
Junu says she and her teammates looked for recipes that sounded good and then adjusted the recipes to fit the nutrition requirements. She says ramping up the spices in the tamales gives the dish flavor without having to use a lot of salt, for instance.

Cooking for astronauts is just one of the successes Ypsilanti's Regional Career Technical Center (RCTC) program has seen in recent months. Gaertner says a team from Ypsilanti made it to fifth place in a recent ProStart culinary skills competition. And, in addition to making the NASA HUNCH finals, Kaba made it through a regional SkillsUSA competition and will soon be competing at the state level.

Kaba says competitors are told the menu ahead of time: chicken, salad, rice, and soup. However, each student must put their own spin on the recipe for each part of the menu.

"With SkillsUSA, I've had tons of students go from the regional championships to state championships to the nationals. I even traveled down to Brazil to watch a student compete at the international level in 2015, which was really awesome," Gaertner says.

Students from any private or public school in the Ypsilanti area can take culinary classes through the RCTC and spend about half their school day at the RCTC center on Ellsworth Road. These students learn lessons in science, math, and other topics through the lens of culinary arts.
Ypsilanti Community High School students at the RCTC culinary arts program.
"[In fourth-year math class,] they have to calculate things like labor and food costs, or edible percentages versus non-edible percentages of food," Gaertner says. "Food safety is biology. Baking is chemistry. They even get one credit for a foreign language because there's so much French nomenclature involved in this."

Gaertner says somewhere between 30% and 50% of students who leave RCTC go on to have a career in the restaurant industry, whether that's cooking or marketing. 

Junu calls participating in the culinary program "an amazing way to earn some confidence not just in the kitchen but anywhere else in your life as well."

Gaertner notes that the four students worked through their spring break to prepare for the NASA competition.

"It's going to be a remarkable experience, and these four deserve it because they've worked really, really hard," he says.

More information about the RCTC program is available here

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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