The Burnet High School culinary arts students’ Chicken Francese is literally out of this world. In about eight to 10 months, the Space Dawgs’ recipe will head to the International Space Station to feed astronauts after winning the national NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge.
The culinary arts team consists of Bridget Bristow, Mathew Thrane, Nicholai Rowland, Will Rundzehier, and Jacey Huston.
“We were ecstatic that we got in the top 10 in the country, but to win it, that’s just amazing,” said Rundzehier, a senior.
Culinary arts teacher Mike Erickson agreed.
“It’s a little surreal,” he said. “If you told me at the beginning of this year that we’d be sending earth food into space, I would have said you’re crazy. But we are, and it’s really changed some kids’ lives.”
Along with winning the national contest among high school teams and having their dish prepared in space, the five Burnet students landed full-ride scholarships to Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, home to one of the best culinary arts programs in the country. The university hosted the NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge finals April 22. Its chefs prepared the final 10 entries for judges since students couldn’t travel due to COVID-19.
The results were announced to teachers May 7, but Erickson opted to hold off letting his students know until Monday, May 10. Over the weekend, he let them think they had finished seventh.
On Monday, Erickson invited the students’ families, campus and district administrators, and guests to be there when the youths learned they actually placed first.
“We thought we were coming in to just thank the chef who prepared our dish for the finals,” Rundzehier said.
As the students gathered around a computer for a Zoom call with HUNCH culinary project manager Allison Westover, she asked if she’d be seeing them this summer during the American Culinary Federation convention. The students were a bit confused by the question, especially when Westover pointed out that NASA HUNCH Culinary Challenge winners get to go to the convention.
The five students looked at each other and then at Erickson.
“You guys won!” he shouted.
The Burnet students began working on their entry earlier this academic year. The theme was Healthy Comfort Food. Coming up with a competitive recipe was a challenge due to NASA nutritional requirements and the effects of space on food and its taste.
Their recipe for Chicken Francese used zucchini noodles in place of pasta and a sauce made from white wine and half-and-half instead of a heavy cream
“The chicken was a very big hurdle to figure out,” Rundzehier said. “It’s a hard dish to take into space. But, wow, we did it! Yeah, it’s surreal. I never thought that in my senior year we’d have a dish that is going to go into space and feed astronauts.”
Burnet High School Principal Casey Burkhart congratulated the five students for taking on such an incredible challenge in an incredibly challenging year.
“(At the beginning of the year), we didn’t know if we were going to be able to finish or what was in store for us. But y’all didn’t just finish, y’all took care of the details,” he said. “Y’all showed spirit, pride, and honor every single day and with everything you do, and it paid off. Congratulations.”