In the early 1990`s I had a chance to work with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and several key partners to the space program. Today`s final shuttle launch is a bag of mixed emotion for me – I`ve adored the concept of space since I was a child. I was 7 or 8 when the first shuttle took off and it`s been a consistent part of my daydreams for as long as I can remember.
My work with them was a total of 3.5 months. My role was fairly low in responsibility but very high in my exposure to the organizations. Our 3-member team was contracted to do a lessons learned on several space-related projects and we obsessed over space for 18-hours a day and 6 days a week. We had the chance to interview hundreds of people who ranged from junior project members to the heads of the programs and included astronauts, scientists, engineers and more.
While the project was not related to food, I do remember two distinct discoveries related to food:
- Crumbs were a nightmare anc considered potentially fatal. The zero-gravity environment could produce crumbs that would float and could get into all sorts of electronic gear. Most of us wouldn`t eat a crumbling pastry directly above their keyboard – when those crumbs can float through the air, it`s almost like everywhere is over a keyboard. Several high-names chefs (including Grant Achatz of Alinea) have been involved with NASA to develop space meals since (not because or related to our project).
- Most Canadians (and others around the world) believe that the Canadian Space Arm (now known as `Dexter` by the program) is the best contribution Canadians have made to Space. While Astronauts that we interviewed agreed that it was vital, they did not think it was the `best`thing Canadians contributed to Space. The consensus favourite is the lesser-known space flusher. A toilet designed to be used in zero-gravity (a loose tie-in to food but it made me chuckle). The complexities of space made the design very difficult.
I also learned a lesson that fundamentally changed the way I work – and cook. The lesson came over lunch while sitting in the cafeteria of the Canadian Space Agency (outside of downtown Montreal) with the then-head of the CSA. I was young, anti-establishment and very much about avoiding any type of process in the name of creativity. My host picked up on all of this, asked me several questions and then said (paraphrased):
We are an extremely creative organization. We take on projects that no one has ever tried before. That`s why we need process. Without a process we wouldn`t know if a project succeeded or failed because of the project or because of how we tried to do it. By approaching each project the same way we enable ourselves to determine what happened – if all the projects fail, the process was wrong, if one fails, the project was wrong.
It was a very scientific approach – constrain a variable.
When I preserve, I also follow consistent processes. I approach each batch in similar ways and learn from each what can be applied to the whole. By doing this, I`ve accelerated my learning…
When I had the opportunity to attend an interview by Chef Thomas Keller (one of the most celebrated Chef`s in the world), he said a similar thing:
Creativity comes from repetition. If you want to be a great Chef, make stock for 2 years and perfect it.
He also stated:
The difficulty with young Chefs (experience, not age) is that they keep wanting to try new things. They move on to the next dish, the next ingredient or the next technique before mastering the last.
I remember connecting Keller`s point to the Space approach I had earlier learned. Since hearing his speech, I have worked on perfecting a limited amount of dishes (pizza and polenta come to mind) rather than just moving on to the next thing as all times. Bread and pastry is my radar as a potential next target…
Space has forever changed me – and my kitchen. I hope the next chapter of our exploration continues to inspire others as much as this one has…