Monday, October 01, 2007

Traditions and sous vide

Tradition is an important part of what we do here at L'Etoile and with the recent Food for Thought Festival, food traditions were the main subect - it was titled "Rediscovering our Regional Food Traditions".

With that said, I had an interesting trip to New York for the International Chefs Congress. The number one cooking subject the chefs were talking about was sous vide cooking.

Sous vide is a relatively new, high tech way of cooking, developed about 30 years ago in France. Slate has a good article here. Basically sous vide involves putting your ingredients in a heat-safe bag and sucking out all the air. The bags are then cooked in what is called an immersion circulator which maintains a very constant cooking temperature - like +- one tenth of a degree!

There are several benefits of sous vide. Food can't be overcooked because the water bath being used is set at the desired final temperature of the food. The longer the food is cooked, it will simply not get any more done. Pretty cool.

There is also the benefit that this process can be used to create dishes that simply cannot be done using any traditional cooking methods. Joel Robuchon did a demonstration where he stuffed a cabbage leaf with a whole sqaub breast and a huge chunk of foie gras and wrapped the whole thing with a thick slice of bacon! These are tradional ingredients that would other wise have to be cooked separately, in order to insure perfect cooking of both proteins. I have to admit that is was inspiring to sit in a room full of amazing chefs from around the world, all of us with our eyes fixed on a culinary icon, while he uses a machine that some of us have never used before to make an amazing, wish-I-would-have-made-it dish.

Another benefit is the simplicity of the process. The need for experienced and talented line chefs is lessened because the machine and the process is doing much of the hard work. Although many consider this a benefit, this seems a little weird to me. Using technology in order to hire less skilled people wouldn't really feel right to me, but I have had many of my chef friends tell me how much they like not worrying about things being over cooked and sent back to the kitchen.

Some problems with sous vide
First, and this is a big one, when you pull some meat prepared with this process out of the bag, there is no wonderful smell that you would get with roasted meat. Sure, you can (and probably will) sear it quickly to add that outer texture and in doing so the traditional smell will come alive. However the kitchen that is cooking a bunch of sous vide steaks will have none of the traditional mouth watering smell of grilled, seared, or roasted meat. To me, this is a very important tradition.

Second, you have to plan ahead much more. Not that we don't plan here at L'Etoile, but a big part of what we do is based on the ingredients that are currently available. This sets us apart from most other restaurants where they determine what they will serve and then go out and source the ingredients. We look at what is in season, what our farmers have available, and then create the menu, which gets back to the traditional way of cooking - using the ingredients you have. With sous vide many restaurants have tomorrows dish cooking today, so as to stay ahead of the game. Some places will say "slow roasted" and what that means is that it was sous vide for many hours, sometimes over night to cook something like short ribs. So if you want to have those short ribs on the menu then you have to have the bags cooking all the time. I'm not sure if I like it.

Third, immersion circulators aren't inexpensive and most restaurants that depend on sous vide use more than one because of the time it takes to cook using this process.

And last, city health departments aren't quite sure what to think about sous vide. In fact, the New York city health department went so far as to crack down on sous vide cooking last year. The reason is that most of our health laws are for cooking and storing food when air is present. With sous vide, the food is in a vacuum so the traditional air borne bacteria are not an issue.

Tradition meets high tech, what to do?
So, sous vide, one of newest most high tech way of preparing food. How do we think about a high tech, highly mechanized cooking process along with the traditions of growing, harvesting, and cooking local food? We understand that what is old now (like gas stoves) was once high tech. So we know that not all new things should be rejected, we're just not quite sure how it all fits in with the way we do things at L'Etoile. I love the way food tastes when it has been braised in red wine all day, and I like that each duck is different and has to be felt and touched to tell when it is done, so we haven't gone sous vide yet, but if you have an opinion, we'd love to hear it.