Cooking in a Vacuum
Connecticut chefs experiment with a cutting-edge cooking technique, while health inspectors scratch their heads in wonder
By Meir Rinde
July 13, 2006
In a private room on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building, under a window looking out over the verdant city and southern suburbs, a gourmet’s fantasy meal lay before me.
I had come to The Polytechnic Club, one of the best restaurants in the Hartford region, to learn about sous vide, a cooking technique in which ingredients are vacuum sealed or “Cryovacked” in a plastic bag, immersed in a hot water bath at tightly controlled temperatures, and then briefly seared in a pan. Arrayed on the table were four white plates with dishes I had just watched executive chef Noel Jones whip up: two plates of Colorado lamb, one cooked sous vide and the other prepared conventionally, along with a plate of fat-laden pork belly and another of Long Island farmed duck, both cooked sous vide.
After tasting the difference between the two lamb dishes, I finally understood the hullabaloo over the cooking technique: while the pan-cooked lamb was delicious, with visible meaty fibers and the distinctive lamb flavor, the sous vide dish was like another kind of food altogether, smoothly textured, evenly rare and slightly chewy, flavorful but with a relatively light taste. It was not just meaty but somehow fleshy, as if it were at once uncooked and cooked perfectly. Think sushi. It was like eating the essence of meat.
The lamb was a revelation, but it was the duck breast that was easily my favorite. Between my taste buds sparking, my eyes rolling back in my head, and the fast-talking Jones glossing the meal, I didn’t manage to take many notes on the flavor; but I dimly recall soft little slices of pink-brown meat, a little sweetness, a subtle duck flavor, and that smooth sous vide texture. The duck had been marinated in thyme, orange zest, Szechuan peppercorn and reduced port wine, and was served with a dollop of foie gras and a few chutneyed muscat grapes.
“The magic happens, really, from the sous vide,” said Jones, hovering in his chef’s whites as I chewed and moaned. “I could take the same breast and make it taste good, but it wouldn’t taste as good. When I taste this, it’s like, my god. Sometimes people cook duck rare and it’s too raw, and you feel like you’re chewing it. With this, it’s almost like, you get that rare effect, but you feel like you’re eating something that’s cooked.”
I meant to ask about food faddism and low-temperature cooking and health inspectors, but when the duck hit my tongue, those petty concerns evaporated. You might say that my journalistic objectivity had been compromised.
Vacuum sealing has been around since the 1960s, and sous vide was developed as a cooking technique in the mid-1970s by a couple French chefs. It’s used widely in Europe, but the early American experience with the technique soured restaurants on sous vide for decades. Erica Howat, the Polytechnic Club’s director, recalled an unsuccessful foray into vacuum sealing in the 1980s, when the Wadsworth Atheneum served sous vide dishes provided by the Restaurant du Village in Chester.
“It was a little bit different then, because it was food that was prepared in Vermont by master chefs and it was coming down in Cryovac,” said Howat, who was a sous chef at the Restaurant du Village. “And it didn’t work out too well for them, because the public got the impression it was like Stouffer’s boil-in-bags, and I think the Courant got ahold of it and it was just sour grapes from there.”
Only a few restaurants in Connecticut appear to use sous vide. A sous chef at Cavey’s in Manchester said the restaurant has used it in the past. Chefs at Gaia in Greenwich uses an idiosyncratic technique they call sous vide, simmering mason jars in water so the air is forced out and the food aromas stay inside until the jar is popped open at the dinner table. At Ibiza in New Haven, Chef Luis Bollo said he loved using sous vide when he worked in Europe – “All the juices get retained in the bag,” he said, “so you make sauces with all the juices and it makes a very special flavor”– but here he doesn’t have the necessary equipment.
The technique appears to have revived in the U.S. as part of an interest in the quasi-scientific “molecular gastronomy” practiced by the Spanish chef Ferran Adria, whose restaurant El Bulli famously offers dishes like carrot foam, consomme pasta, and ice cream that is flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen. Sous vide had a coming out party of sorts last August when the New York Times Magazine published a long article on the prominent chefs and food scientists who champion it.
There was soon a backlash; New York City health officials said restaurants were not using approved guidelines for food temperatures and other variables – no such guidelines existed – and they were concerned that storage of improperly vacuum-sealed food could promote the growth of dangerous bacteria that flourish in the absence of oxygen, like botulism. Sous vide was temporarily banned in New York restaurants, under penalty of heavy fines.
Noel Jones said his eyes opened to the possibilities of sous vide last summer, when he spent a week and a half observing at Bouley, the renowned Tribeca restaurant of Storrs-born chef David Bouley. Jones came back and told Howat the Polytechnic Club needed to spend upwards of $5,000 for a vacuum-sealer and a thermal circulator, and when he explained the effect on the taste of the food, it was only a matter of hunting around the Internet for a scientific supply company that would sell them the equipment.
Though the Irish-born Jones makes dishes that hew to the classical Continental style, he is an enthusiast of cutting-edge cooking techniques. His current menu uses foam in one dish, despite what he described as murmurs that the foam fad has passed. By contrast, he said sous vide is here to stay because it produces such amazing flavors.
“We are having an amazing amount of fun with this,” he said. “I mean, I know what happened in New York, everybody was like, oh my god – it was like we were caught doing something major illegal. For us, we’re having fun. It’s not going to go away, it’s not a fad. Eventually it’s going to be everywhere.”
In a demonstration last week, Jones crowded into a narrow passageway in the back of his kitchen and set up a tray of ice cubes on a cart. He put a heavy plastic bag in a small metal pail, donned latex gloves, used metal tongs to put a piece of marinated lamb in the bag, lifted out the bag and let it rest on the ice. He repeated the process for a long slice of duck breast that was incised with a cross-hatch pattern on one side.
The vacuum sealer sat on a counter, looking like a silver toaster oven resting on its back, with its clear plastic door angled upward. He put in one of the bags, slotted its top between two horizontal rods, and held the door down while pressing on a button. The sealer hummed for 30 seconds, then made a snapping noise followed by an extended exhalation. In that moment, the bag had instantly deflated and the rods had heat-sealed it, leaving the plastic tightly contoured around the meat. Jones wrote the date on the bag with with a marker and put it back on the ice.
For the next step, he threaded past cooks preparing for the lunch rush and went to a water-filled pan sitting next to a cooking range. The thermal circulator is a box with a digital readout and several rods extending down into the water, where they are attached to a metal ring. As the water circulates through the ring, it stays at a constant temperature that would be impossible to maintain precisely on the range. Jones set the temperature to 149.1 degrees Fahrenheit, set two timers to 11 and 12 minutes, and put the bags in the water. When the timers beeped, he pulled the bags out, cut them open and prepared to sear the meat briefly in pans, giving it the browned exterior diners expect.
Jones said he uses sous vide very differently than some New York restaurants that are getting in trouble for vacuum sealing indiscriminately, using food that’s been sitting around or hasn’t been kept clean. “What I saw up there was definitely not something that I would want to do in my kitchen,” he said. “They’re operating in very small tight spots…it just doesn’t work. When we decide to do it, we follow very strict guidelines for ourselves. No chef wants to ever cause any injury or harm to a guest. It’s the worst thing you could ever think about it. For us it’s all about safety.”
Despite the controversy in New York, sous vide does not appear to be on the radar of local health officials in Connecticut. In Manchester, despite the past use at Cavey’s Restaurant, a health inspector said he was unaware of the technique. A New Haven official said she’d read about it in the New York Times and thought it was forbidden by the state’s health code. Elizabeth Kavanah, a public health sanitarian in Hartford, said she hadn’t heard of sous vide being used by restaurants in her city. If a chef wanted to use sous vide, Kavanah’s department would have to evaluate the method to see if it met the requirements of the state code, she said.
When told that sous vide was still rare in Hartford restaurants, Tracey Weeks, coordinator of the state Department of Public Health’s food protection program, had a quick response: “That’s good.” Weeks said that sous vide, as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is a technique that uses vacuum sealing to slow the growth of microorganisms and give food a longer shelf life. Big food processing companies are equipped to do it safely, but restaurants generally are not.
“Our code does not really allow for processing,” she said. “We consider sous vide a process, something that should be done at a much higher level, by a commercial processer that has much higher control and does routine checks. They have all these checks and alarms that would go off if things aren’t done right. You don’t have that in a restaurant.”
But Weeks’ definition of sous vide is a little different from what Noel Jones does. Jones doesn’t lightly cook a steak, vacuum seal it and leave it in the fridge for a week or two, allowing bacteria to grow. He typically seals it raw, cooks it, leaves it in the fridge for a few hours, then cuts it out of the package and sears it quickly in a pan before before serving. Some dishes cook for much longer – 36 hours, in the case of the pork belly I sampled – but, again, they’re not stored long before they’re served.
Weeks seemed to think Jones’ technique was a little ridiculous. “I don’t know why they would do it,” she said. “It seems like a lot more work.” She suggested that sous vide, as actually practiced in restaurants, might pass muster if the food is cooked at sufficiently high temperatures, or the menu has a warning that diners are being served undercooked dishes.
“It’s difficult, without knowing exactly what they’re doing, to know if they’re doing it right or not,” she said. “It might just be their way of cooking the lamb. It sounds time-consuming, but it may be within the code.” ●
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