'Great Food Truck Race' blasts off on 17th season with stop at NASA


“The Great Food Truck Race” lifted off for its 17th season on the Food Network by touching down at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Host and celebrity chef Tyler Florence welcomed nine first-time food truck teams to the George S. Abbey Rocket Park to get a first look at their trucks and to face off for their first competition, the “Blast Off Challenge,” on Sunday night’s (June 30) season premiere.

“Where you’re standing right now represents a giant leap to push mankind to its limits,” said Florence, as he and the teams were backdropped by historic Mercury-Redstone and Little Joe II rockets, as well as the building housing one of the only Apollo-era Saturn V moon rockets still in existence. “Teams, I want you to channel that energy and blast off right into your first challenge right here on the Great Food Truck Race!”

The competitors included Argentina’s Empanadas from Wichita, Kansas; Bao Bei from Washington D.C.; Cooks with Passion, a Caribbean “New South” cuisine team from Atlanta; Down to Get Tacos from Gilbert, Arizona; Fishnet from Baltimore, Maryland; Kalye, featuring Filipino cuisine from New York City; Plates on Deck, serving up eclectic soul food from Davenport, Florida; SOLA Po’Boys from Los Angeles; and Wally’s Waffles from Chicago.

a man wearing sunglasses and a black jacket speaks and gesticulates, with a life-sized space shuttle orbiter model in the backgrounda man wearing sunglasses and a black jacket speaks and gesticulates, with a life-sized space shuttle orbiter model in the background

a man wearing sunglasses and a black jacket speaks and gesticulates, with a life-sized space shuttle orbiter model in the background

In just 40 minutes, the teams had to “prep, cook and land” their Blast-Off dish, which needed to emphasize a trait about the foods that crew members prefer to eat while in space.

“Astronauts up in space experience a diminished sense of taste and smell, so they tend to crave food that really packs a punch. And you know what? So do I,” said Florence. “I want you to make me an out-of-this-world flavor rocket, Blast-Off dish. Show me who you are as a food truck and blow me away.”

Related: Food in space: What do astronauts eat?

The bland taste that foods can take on while in space is, in part, due to “fluid shift,” or the redistribution of fluids in astronauts’ bodies without the steady pull of gravity. Fluids that normally pool in the extremities become more evenly distributed, which in the short term can affect the sinuses and the astronauts’ ability to smell.

On long-duration missions, crew members can also experience “nose blindness,” as persistent odors emanating from on board the spacecraft or space station are “tuned out” by the brain.

To address this, astronauts tend to request spicy foods, like shrimp cocktail, and bring salt solution, pepper oil and sriracha sauce to add their meals.

seen from behind, a man in a black jacket addresses a crowd of people standing in a parking lotseen from behind, a man in a black jacket addresses a crowd of people standing in a parking lot

seen from behind, a man in a black jacket addresses a crowd of people standing in a parking lot

As the teams inspected their new food trucks, Florence was joined by a larger-than-life astronaut, the inflatable, walk-around mascot for Space Center Houston, the official visitor center for Johnson Space Center.

“Hey Cosmo, are you ready to do this?” said Florence, before turning his attention back to the teams. “Your time starts now!”

Argentina’s Empanadas decided to prepare Matambre A La Pizza, an Argentinian-style flank steak pizza.

“First thing we’re going to do is make our chimichurri. We blend parsley, cilantro, olive oil and onion, and then put it on the burner,” said team member Chad Freeman. “And we’re grilling the steak — we will take NASA’s rockets to the moon, I promise you.”

Down to Get Tacos set aside their name and chose to make a quesarito instead.

“We should do something that’s just going to blow [Tyler’s] mind with that first bite. Blast off, right?” said Oz Gudino. “The quesarito — the burrito meets a quesadilla with a cheese crisp on the outside.”

Other teams’ dishes included Passa Passa pasta from Plates on Deck; Taiwanese fried chicken on a fried bao (“It’s got the craters! It looks like the moon, right?”) from Bao Bei; Sinigang fried rice from Kalye; crispy wild sockeye salmon taco from Fishnet; a Belgian waffle with strawberries, banana, whipped cream and chocolate sauce from Wally’s Waffles; and cajun shrimp and crab curry on a rice cake from SOLA Po’Boys.

For this season, titled “Games on the Gulf,” the top teams each week are being awarded gold, silver and bronze medals — a thematic tie-in with the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris — and each comes with a cash bonus. Finishing the Blast-Off Challenge in third and receiving $100 was Down to Get Tacos with their quesarito. Placing second with $200 was Plates on Deck for their jerk pasta.

closeup of a clear plastic cup of reddish-orange gumbo, with a shrimp and grits burger on the sidecloseup of a clear plastic cup of reddish-orange gumbo, with a shrimp and grits burger on the side

closeup of a clear plastic cup of reddish-orange gumbo, with a shrimp and grits burger on the side

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“There were a lot of good dishes here, but there was one that really warmed my heart,” said Florence. “For the Blast-Off Challenge, the gold and $300 goes to Cooks with Passion. I got to tell you, a quick way to my heart is shrimp and grits all day long. Nice job.”

Cooks with Passion prepared a shrimp and grits “burger” with fried grits serving as the bun and a gumbo dipping sauce.

With their first challenge behind them, the teams packed up their trucks and left Johnson Space Center for their next destination in downtown Houston. Over the course of this season, the nine teams will compete to stay in the race as they make their way east and a finale at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami.

“The Great Food Truck Race” is the latest cooking reality show to film at Johnson Space Center and the George S. Abbey Rocket Park. Previous series to visit NASA in Houston have included Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2022 and “Emeril Live” with chef Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network.

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