Maggie Coblentz


FEBRUARY 24, 2022


A New Zero Gravity Cuisine is a culinary collaboration that imagines the transformation of ingredients in zero gravity. I’m a researcher and designer at the MIT Space Exploration Initiative and my recent work explores food and material culture in low Earth orbit and extreme environments. As part of my multi-year Interplanetary Gastronomy  project, I sought to dive into the imaginations of chefs and launched a collaboration with the restaurant Alchemist. The two Michelin star restaurant is headed by Chef Rasmus Munk in Copenhagen, Denmark and offers guests an immersive dining experience and provocative high-concept dishes that draw upon elements of gastronomy, theater, art, science, and technology. For the past year, I embedded myself into the R&D division to collaborate on every aspect of the process, working closely with the research team, development kitchen, and design studio.

  This has been a very long time in the making since I’ve dreamt of working in a kitchen since I was young. I’m trained as an industrial designer, and all of my cooking experience is entirely self-taught. Since arriving at the Media Lab in 2018, I’ve been teaching myself how to transform different culinary techniques for zero gravity environments and how to adapt technology to conduct experimental food science on parabolic flights and in the International Space Station (ISS). I continue to be intrigued by the possibilities that each of these projects have opened up.

“What do traditions and rituals around food teach us about daily life in low Earth orbit? How does food reflect the microbiome of the space environment? What is the sensation of spaceflight, through touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste? How will flavor evolve in the future?”

While NASA’s select space food offerings undergo freeze-drying, a dehydration process to prepare food for a list of health, safety, and storage requirements for present-day space travel, I envision an entirely new branch of food science and culinary arts in low Earth orbit––one that invites the diversity of Earth's rich food cultures, and the possibility for new interplanetary cuisines. Early on, I sent out an open request for people to submit recipes and designs to my ongoing Interplanetary Cookbook project. Next, I wanted to explore space food through the minds and cooking mastery of chefs. I was thrilled when Rasmus, the creative behind Alchemist and fellow space enthusiast, wanted to collaborate on my project.

Looking back on this past year, it astounds me that I landed at a restaurant, of all places, amidst a global pandemic. While restaurants were closed for service in Copenhagen, a few teams were still going into work at Alchemist. I made the best of this quiet time by getting to know the restaurant space, and trying my hand at cooking in a professional kitchen. For these first few months we split the task of the daily staff meal, often sharing our family recipes. My spare time was spent with a small international group of chefs at home, since they would have otherwise been working evenings at restaurants across the city. Despite lockdowns, I learnt so much in these early days cooking and eating together, sometimes preparing meals over multiple sessions in advance. Denmark's hospitality industry eventually began to reopen in the spring, and I watched in fascination as Alchemist came back to life. Over 90 chefs returned to their stations, and just like that, our daily staff meals went from intimate gatherings to full-blown operations.

Stepping behind the scenes at Alchemist feels closer to working at a theater production company than a restaurant. Rasmus has intentionally built a multi-layered theatrical experience, and the restaurant is fittingly located in the former set-building workshop of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen’s old shipyard neighborhood, Refshalevej. The restaurant stretches across 22,000 square feet and three floors. It’s broken into nine “acts” through which diners travel to different rooms where they're served nearly 40 dishes Alchemist refers to as “impressions.”

I was hooked by the main dining room––a planetary dome. Alchemist's in-house studio team of visual, lighting, and sound designers create entire worlds to accompany each dish. This experience has been coined “holistic cuisine” by Rasmus, a concept that extends beyond the plate to create thought-provoking and sensory dining experiences. Since taste and texture are experienced differently in zero gravity, I was interested in exploring how this "holistic" approach could be applied to the design of space food.

The R&D team, where I sat for the past twelve months, is led by Diego Prado, who’s trained as a chef and has spent his career working within cooking and science at top restaurants and universities around the world. Nabila Rodriguez Valeron is a chemist and flavor expert, and the lead researcher at Alchemist who runs experiments and helps transform research into edible creations. Mikel Olaizola Garcia is a chef who works between departments to translate both design concepts and culinary processes. The R&D team was initially set up as an extension of the Development Kitchen to work on applications for novel techniques and dishes, and also as a space devoted to research to create more accessibility to the innovation taking place the professional kitchen.

“Kitchens are complex lab spaces, yet beyond the dinner plate there’s been no clear path to make a chef's work accessible, or for a chef to patent their creations.”

In recent years, there’s been a push for chefs to publish, and this has been heavily promoted through the Harvard Science and Cooking Public Lecture Series which brings together chefs and academics, and the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, a peer reviewed journal known to feature chefs. As a researcher and designer, and want-to-be chef, it was quite special to find a temporary home, complementary to the MIT Media Lab, within an interdisciplinary team at a restaurant setting.

When I first arrived at Alchemist, Nabila was leading research on the flavor attributes and culinary applications of the Pinaceae species (conifer trees or shrubs), and I observed as she painstakingly picked needles off of endless containers of Abies grandis (Grand fir). She passed around tiny needles to smell and taste, thoughtfully identifying the subtleties of the flavor––in this case clear notes of grapefruit and other citrus. Nabila highlighted their specific sensory attributes through a combination of chemical flavor analysis in the lab and tasting panels. After working on a laptop for many years, I appreciated this slow process of passing a pine needle around the table, and engaging in a different type of design review through the senses and a shared experience. Later on, I watched the Abies grandis turn into dishes and presented through the service side of Alchemist––a whole other orchestration of details and interactions to admire. 

Expanding on my space bread research and recent parabolic flight performance, Gravity Proof: Speculating Cosmic Futures, my first collaborative project with Alchemist was to create a bread recipe for the ISS. This was the perfect place to begin since something so basic for a restaurant is incredibly complex in microgravity environments. Working within the parameters of space travel, we designed experimental methods to keep a sourdough starter alive, and prototypes for special packaging for mixing dry ingredients in weightlessness. Our method was informed by the cooking capabilities of the ISS, such as the volume and temperature constraints of the Zero G Kitchen Oven. Each ingredient was carefully selected to compensate for shifts in taste and smell reported by astronauts in space.

Our latest bread recipe was based on a standard soda bread with the texture of a traditional brioche. This made it more moist and compact inside to avoid crumb flyaways in zero g, while preserving the Earthly taste and texture of a sourdough. The dough was designed to more runny than a normal bread dough, as it would need to be mixed in a vacuum bag and transferred to a silicone mold. In soda bread, the CO2 production is based on Sodium bicarbonate and baking powder adding a distinct alkaline flavor. It also results in a very fast bread production to accommodate limited and valuable crew time for a possible future ISS baking experiment. Freeze dried sourdough starter was added solely to improve the flavor characteristics, since it wasn't needed for the fermentation process. Additional ingredients were used to help with the Maillard reaction to form a soft crust and sourdough-like aromas. The spherical form was inspired by my previous parabolic flight experiments and the material opportunities made possible by the absence of gravity.

Collaborating with Alchemist in their kitchen laboratory has not only inspired my research on space food, but opened up my thinking to entirely new ways of working through the senses and with an even greater respect for ingredients. Together with Alchemist, it’s been fascinating to speculate on the art and science of cooking in zero gravity, and new forms of knowledge creation in outer space. Our space menu collaboration is in the final stages and will be shared soon.

Special thanks to the MIT Space Exploration Initiative for supporting this research, my hosts and team at Alchemist, and Nabila Rodriguez Valeron who first opened up this culinary collaboration.

Written by Maggie Coblentz, 2021. 

Copyright Maggie Coblentz, 2022.