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Astronauts dish on 'Top Chef: Houston' space food challenge

Astronaut Susan Kilrain critiques a chef's space food concoction while fellow astronaut Tony Antonelli and other guest judges listen in the "Top Chef Houston" episode "Dinner in Zero Gravity."
Astronaut Susan Kilrain critiques a chef's space food concoction while fellow astronaut Tony Antonelli and other guest judges listen in the "Top Chef Houston" episode "Dinner in Zero Gravity." (Image credit: Bravo)

Cady Coleman, Tony Antonelli and Susan Kilrain may or may not be foodies, but they can now say they have played one on TV.

The three former NASA astronauts, who are more experts on space food than they are on fine cuisine, are guest judges on the next episode of "Top Chef (opens in new tab)". In "Dinner in Zero Gravity," which premieres Thursday (May 5) on Bravo, Coleman, Antonelli and Kilrain meet up with the six remaining "cheftestants" at Space Center Houston before tasting each of the chefs' takes on a "new menu item that they would crave if they were on a multi-year mission to Mars."

More than just another elimination challenge on the cooking competition show, the winning chef's dish will be adapted by NASA for a future space mission.

(For "Top Chef" fans thinking that sounds familiar, this is the second time the series has taken on space food (opens in new tab). In 2010, chef Angelo Sosa's short ribs launched aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery after being selected by the judges.)

Between them, Coleman, Antonelli and Kilrain have logged more than 220 days dining on space food in Earth orbit. Tony and Susan both piloted two space shuttle missions, while Cady flew as a mission specialist before living on the International Space Station for five months.

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Astronauts Cady Coleman and Tony Antonelli, standing in the shadow of a Saturn V rocket, join CEO William Harris in welcoming the Top Chef Houston chefs to Space Center Houston.

Astronauts Cady Coleman and Tony Antonelli, standing in the shadow of a Saturn V rocket, join CEO William Harris in welcoming the "Top Chef Houston" chefs to Space Center Houston. (Image credit: Bravo)

collectSPACE caught up with Cady, Tony and Susan before the episode aired — and before even they had seen who had won — to get them to dish on their "Top Chef" experience.

collectSPACE (cS): First off, do you consider yourself a foodie?

Cady Coleman: Foodie, as in someone who genuinely loves food and loves to see what happens when real chefs come up with amazing flavors and textures, or in other words, I don't know a ton about it, but really appreciate it.

Susan Kilrain: Well, I married a foodie, and so I have become more of a foodie because of that.

Tony Antonelli: I don't consider myself a foodie. I only joke now that I did a brief foray and into the world of a food critic, but I was really more like a fish out of water. If you need somebody to land or pilot your space shuttle or fly an airplane, then I've got some experience doing that, but if you need somebody to critically evaluate your food, my talents lie elsewhere.

cS: Were you a fan of "Top Chef" before getting the call to be a guest on the show?

Susan: I had not really watched it, but my daughters had, so when I got the call asking if I would come on the show they were insistent that I go do it.

The funny part is, when I asked why, they said, "Well, it'll give you a lot of street cred." And I said, "Really? I flew in space twice, and this is what is going to give me street cred?" And they both said yes.

Cady: I had only seen it now and then at a friend's house. We don't do a lot of TV — but now, as a result of the show, I am a "Top Chef" fan. I like the stories behind the food and the stories of the people.

I loved the episode where they went to Freedman's Town. I learned a lot I would have never known about that part of Houston. It gave me a different appreciation of what the history of a neighborhood means.

Tony: I was familiar with the show, but I wasn't a huge fan or regular watcher of the show. But once once I got contacted, I went back and watched a good chunk of the previous season just to try to get the lay of the land.

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Former NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Tony Antonelli appear as guest judges on Top Chef Houston.

Former NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Tony Antonelli appear as guest judges on "Top Chef Houston." (Image credit: Bravo)

cS: What surprised you or might surprise others about being on the show?

Tony: A lot of the chefs' questions were what you would expect from professionally trained chefs. They were different than I would have asked, but as soon as they asked them, they were no longer a surprise. It was more for me like, "Oh yeah, that's how chefs think."

The other thing — I am fairly introverted and get, well, not overly nervous, but nervous while preparing to be on TV. So we were all standing around before walking out to be filmed and I remember saying something like, "Oh man, I can't believe I signed up to actually eat on TV," or something like that.

And then Tom [Colicchio, chef and the head judge on "Top Chef"] turned to me and said, "No, dude, we're just sitting down to have a nice meal. And we're going to talk to each other and we're going to talk about our food." That helped and I thought it was kind of him to say.

Susan: The taping of it all was much, much longer than the actual episode. I think everybody got to express what they liked or didn't like about each dish, so it will be interesting to see how they edited it.

Cady: All of the food in space looks bad (but actually tastes just fine). In general, there's no emphasis on making it look appetizing. So it was a little shocking to see things all look so attractive.

cS: What was your favorite type of food when you flew in space?

Cady: We were allowed to get some stuff from Trader Joe's and stores like that because the food had the right expiration date and it met all the criteria. So I had Thai food and rice and the rice was kind of sticky. So I would take the rice and stick it over into the Thai food and it was a long mixing up kind of process that just went on throughout dinner. It was just sort of nice to be kind of making my own food, if that makes sense.

Susan: Of the "true" space food, like the dehydrated food, I'd have to say chicken and rice and the shrimp cocktail were probably my two favorites. Chicken and rice is a comfort food, and then I liked the spiciness of the shrimp cocktail.

But then again, I flew a jar of peanut butter and some crackers and that kept me going.

Tony: The shrimp cocktail, but you've heard a bunch of us say that's a favorite.

Astronauts Cady Coleman (fourth from left), Susan Kilrain (fourth from right) and Tony Antonelli (at right) join Space Center Houston CEO William Harris, chefs Melissa King, Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons and host Padma Lakshmi on the Top Chef Houston set.

Astronauts Cady Coleman (fourth from left), Susan Kilrain (fourth from right) and Tony Antonelli (at right) join Space Center Houston CEO William Harris, chefs Melissa King, Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons and host Padma Lakshmi on the "Top Chef Houston" set. (Image credit: Bravo)

cS: Without giving away details about what the chefs prepared, what did you think of their take on space food?

Susan: I think you will see in the episode that we were relatively unanimous in which ones were the better flavors and which ones would translate to space food the best and maybe the one or two that wouldn't be as good.

I really liked most of them, but they did have to consider other factors, like who got out of their comfort zone a little bit, so there's a bunch of other things that play into who wins.

Cady: I would say they were all better than the standard space food.

But I also thought of them more in terms of the flavors. I figured we could get around the practicality [of adapting a dish for microgravity]. If I got to pick which of the dishes I would bring to space, it would have been an entree that just really had all these interesting, surprising flavors around every corner.

Tony: I thought all of the dishes were great, and all the chefs were great. I wish we could change the rules, because I don't want any of them to go.

I have plans once this thing is done to go find them in whatever restaurants they work in or run because I want more. They were all fantastic people, fantastic chefs and fantastic dishes.

Tune into Bravo at 8 p.m. Eastern on Thursday (May 5) to watch "Dining in Zero Gravity," episode 10 of "Top Chef: Houston (opens in new tab)". Then return to collectSPACE (opens in new tab) on Friday for a recap and to learn more about the winning dish heading for space.

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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.