Young Cho's goals are even bigger than deep space; His team is working on astronaut nutrition that translates to earth
Have you ever wondered what astronauts eat while in space? That question and others have been on the mind of local restaurateur and entrepreneur Young Cho since he was a boy. While he's taken some detours along the way his dream of being involved in the space program is actually taking shape. But his vision goes all the way out to deep space and back to earth in ways you might not expect.
Cho, along with a hand picked assortment of team members, is taking part in something called the Deep Space Food Challenge. The program sanctioned by NASA, "seeks ideas for novel food production technologies or systems that require minimal resources and produce minimal waste, while providing safe, nutritious, and tasty food for long-duration human exploration missions. Solutions from this challenge could enable new avenues for food production around the world, especially in extreme environments, resource-scarce regions, and in new places like urban areas and in locations where disasters disrupt critical infrastructure."
It's got multiple phases and the first one closes July 30. There's a $500,000 prize for the winning team.
Cho, 31, worked in conventional business for a few years until one night he had an epiphany. HIs whole family knew how to cook. His Korean heritage had been steeped in the fusion of many different flavors. He saw a new path. Shortly after that realization he happened to be in a market in South Park when the owner pointed out that he had a grill in the back and wanted to sell it to someone to operate. Cho jumped at the chance. He called it Phorale and offered East Asian with a Tex Mex fusion.
Business was slow at first, but that proved to be an advantage since it gave him time to refine his recipes. Then one rainy night a guy with a skateboard comes in and orders a number of items. Cho thought nothing of it. But a few days later, suddenly he was inundated with business. The line extended through the store and out the door. The Stranger had given him a hugely positive review. That led to more coverage from magazines, and food centric websites. Steady business meant he was making money so at one point he had the opportunity to buy a food truck and business really took off. Cho however is a restless and ambitious man. When the lease came due at the grill, and he was confronted with large bill to help pay for a clogged drain, he chose to close instead.
He chose to spend four months making food for the South Park Senior Center as he weighed his options.
A friend of his offered to sell him a food truck and that felt right.
He set up a prep operation in a commissary kitchen to supply the truck and that took off too. Fueled by his success, he found a new physical location on Delridge Way near White Center and bought out the former Vietnamese restaurant.
Then the pandemic hit.
Taking the money from the food truck, he got the build out completed and Phorale Way was gearing up to open. At that point he was very close, then yet another opportunity appeared that would take some time. His girlfriend Sharon (with his help) wanted to open a Boba Tea shop in White Center. They got the space, right in the middle of the block on 16th SW and put over $15,000 into getting it ready. They were set to open in late July.
Then a huge fire swept through the businesses in that building. Those dreams are now on hold.
But what does all this have to do with the Deep Space Food Challenge?
NASA's website says, "Astronauts eat three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nutritionists ensure the food astronauts eat provides them with a balanced supply of vitamins and minerals. Calorie requirements differ for astronauts. For instance, a small woman would require only about 1,900 calories a day, while a large man would require about 3,200 calories. An astronaut can choose from many types of foods such as fruits, nuts, peanut butter, chicken, beef, seafood, candy, brownies, etc. Available drinks include coffee, tea, orange juice, fruit punches and lemonade."
Cho and his team believe that NASA really has no idea what they are doing when it comes to well thought out, smart nutritional choices. "They literally give them peanut candies that have aflatoxins in them," he said, "and we can make it so much better." He notes that bone loss is common among astronauts who spend extended periods in space and this must be addressed. He believes his team of experts can create nutrient dense foods that are tasty and appealing. It's a tall order. So this is for him a 'Passion project" since winning the prize is by no means certain.
He formed "Team Ad Astra" (Latin for 'To the Stars') to participate in the Deep Space Food Challenge which is also sanctioned by CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and the Methuselah Foundation (an organization focued on longevity).
As Cho explains it, "20 teams in the USA, Canada and Internationally will be chosen based on their conceptual ideas and will be awarded a prize and entry into the second phase. The Ad Astra team was founded through individuals who met on the Food and Beverage Magazine’s, Clubhouse group and is comprised of Dr. Christopher Daugherty whose focus is on biodynamic and regenerative superfoods, Chef Ronaldo Linares who is a private chef for top professional athletes in the US and Dr. Stephan Van Vliet who is a metabolomics research scientist at Duke University. Chef Young Cho is working to implement food transparency and better options to underserved communities.
The Ad Astra advisory board includes, John Mattison, the former Chief Medical Information Officer of Kaiser Permanente, Jae Lee of Pronuvia who specializes in anti-orbital ionic calcium therapy, and 40 year NASA veteran Herb Baker.
Ad Astra’s focus will be creating palatable, nutrient dense foods that will be representing a wide array of ethnic cuisines while fulfilling the nutritional parameters needed to upkeep both physiological and neurological health for the astronauts while utilizing precise metabolomics , and human microbiome testing through accredited institutions. (Metabolomics is the large-scale study of small molecules, commonly known as metabolites, within cells, biofluids, tissues or organisms)
As everyday passes, humanity is one step closer to losing the ability to sustain life due to the diminishing resources. This project will not only assist in future aerospace missions, but ultimately help to implement such processes and technology to preserve life on Earth."
Boiled down Team Ad Astra's concepts, which must be presented in a five minute video and an academic paper, have to take into account optimal nutrition, packaging, preserving, and more.
Some of the ideas they are working on are:
Creating a different nut based real chocolate candy, by 'Pearling" a Brazil nut which has more nutrition than a peanut, but is made from better ingredients.
A variation on Korean Bibimap. Bibimbap is served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables or traditional fermented vegetables and pepper or soy.
The use of less commonly found seasonings like Burdock Root or Balloon Flower to lend both flavor and nutritional value.
Another aspect the team is working on leverages a common space flight complaint. "Astronauts lose up to 40% of their ability to taste since mucus membranes typically swell up, and you are living for a long time in a pressurized environment," Cho explained, "so the most requested condiment in space is hot sauce. Usually something like Tobasco." He went on to say that salt and pepper can't be used in powder form or sprinkled in a weightless environment, "So we're working less on things you must add, but instead on dishes that are both highly nutritional and already have spice."
As far flung as his ideas might go, Cho's ambitions are actually even more directed at life on earth.
"I believe food equity is important." By that he means that all people have a right to good, and real food. Food that's not only tasty but highly nutritious. "It starts with the accountability from the farmers all the way up to the people who are processing this food. But for example, not all Kale is grown equally. Testing is available but it's not widely done. You have these corporations, mass conglomerates who run these massive farms, and people like you and I are left to assume we are eating good food. It's like the onion. Most people don't know that the onion they are eating was harvested likely last year." Cho's point is that poorer neighborhoods suffer in ways they don't even understand because the actual nutritional value of the foods sold to them is unknown.
"The answer is a Refractometer," Cho said, (Refractometers are simple optical instruments for measuring the dissolved solids content of fruits, grasses and vegetables during all stages of growth. Refractometers work on the principle of light bending when it passes from air into water), since it can tell you the amount of sugars and other nutrients in a fruit or vegetable. As produce ages, it loses vital nutrients. "These hand held gizmos could be used to get better foods to more places."
He also champions something even more high tech. Microencapsulation of the nutrients using nano-technology. "This could lead to many other products too," he said, "If you are having bone issues you just rub some anti-orbital Ionic Calcium into your skin, as a calcium supplement."
Also back on earth, and right here in Seattle, Cho said he finally plans to get the long delayed Phorale Way physical location at 9418 Delridge Way SW opened, likely in August and at the latest by September.
If his past success and remarkable ambitions are any guide, it ought to be out of this world.
When I 1st took my grandson to Phorale in South Park, his 18 yr old response was wow! He loved the cross cultural favors and unique style that Cho had put togeteher. For me, it was the food, but his social responce to the neighborhood really fancinated me. I feel what his cooking reflects, his social values, that are inclusive of the community he was in... his foods are a reflection of Young, the person. Truly Unique American.