Seeing Sous Vide

Why all the taste-making top-tier kitchens in the Twin Cities are suddenly awash in plastic bags

One of the most fascinating things about talking to local chefs about their use of sous vide was how each of them is using the new technique to serve his own personal vision. For instance, Seth Bixby Daugherty, chef of the Graves 601 Hotel's Cosmos, in downtown Minneapolis, just got back from a victory trip to Hawaii, where he and a few of the other chefs Food and Wine magazine named the 10 best chefs of the year were being celebrated.

"Basically you could have come in one night to a hotel room and found all of us being debaucherous and reading [Jean Roca's] sous vide book. Sous vide was what everyone wanted to talk about," Daugherty told me. "At Cosmos we have a whole list of stuff we've been playing with. On a tasting menu last month we took live spiny lobsters, cleaned them, put the tail meat in a sous vide bag with some fresh grated ginger, lemon, olive oil, and poached it. It came out amazing."

In this instance the lobster flesh, which notoriously decays every second it is exposed to air, and fresh ginger, which, likewise, browns and sours in moments, had their fresh sweetness captured in a way that would be otherwise impossible in the chaos and time pressure of restaurant service.

Cosmos is also right now serving a lamb loin sous vide on their everyday dinner menu, a lamb loin that they sear and then package with olive oil and seasonings, and serve atop preserved tomato tart along with a salad of black radish and fennel, crisped prosciutto, and a balsamic vinegar sorbet.

Daugherty reports that his restaurant just ordered an induction burner, another way of maintaining extremely stable heat control, so that we should all expect much more sous vide from Cosmos in the year to come.

Meanwhile, John Occhiato, chef at D'Amico Cucina, has a sous vide veal dish on his dinner menu and uses the technique in order to emphasize the luxurious ingredients his expense-account restaurant is famous for. "I put veal tenderloin in the pouch with a composed butter made with black truffles, anchovies, parsley, and celery leaf, sous vide it, and then chill it down. When it comes time to serve, we bring it up to temperature, and take all the butter and truffles that are still in the pouch, and develop that into a sauce," which is how you don't lose even a gram of something that can cost several hundred dollars an ounce.

"At first I wondered if sous vide was a fad," he says. "It's a huge time commitment and much more expensive to prepare something sous vide then to, say, grill it. But over the last year I've decided it makes the most tender chicken and veal I've ever had. Right now our sous vide veal is the most popular thing we serve. We'll sell 45 of this entree, 50 of that, and 160 veal." In another month, says Occhiato, D'Amico Cucina will be investing in a full-scale sous vide setup; up till now they've been relying on a combination of vacuum bags and traditional pans set to simmer on the stove.

"I think what makes it a fad or not a fad is when you're using it because it's the best technique for your restaurant, not because you're just going to sous vide everything. Like, for a while I thought I might sous vide all my lobsters. You can blanch them for 30 seconds, take them out of the shell, put them in a pouch, and you end up with something that's super melt-in-your-mouth. On the other hand, it takes five times as long, and if you just control your bouillon, your poaching liquid, it's maybe not as good but it's close enough. And since we go through 70 lobsters a week, it makes more sense for us to poach lobsters, and sous vide veal."

Occhiato also pointed out that the more sous vide-ing you do, the more you can spread cooking out over the course of the day, and the less pressure comes down on traditional high-stress kitchen line positions, like the sauté station.

At Cucina's sister restaurant and cocktail destination, Café Lurcat, this can be especially helpful, as the several-hundred- seat restaurant does gangbusters business on Fridays and Saturdays and often slows down to sleepy levels Sundays and Mondays, when as few as three chefs will be working the kitchen's five stations. "If something's already cooked in a bag, it definitely helps," Adam King, Lurcat's executive chef told me. Lurcat has a sous vide chicken breast on its dinner menu right now, one that's cooked in double-strength chicken stock, milk-poached garlic, and shaved shallots, and served with baby artichokes and fava beans.

"I really like the way vegetables turn out sous vide," says King, "because you're not overcooking them. We're working on something new right now with baby bok choy and apples. To me bok choy is very sweet, if you don't overcook it." But baby bok choy is a good example of something that can be very difficult not to overcook in a restaurant environment: It's woody enough that it requires a fair amount of cooking time, which means that you either partly cook it and then finish cooking for service, which can lead to bitterness, or you cook each portion to order, which can take up precious stove space and time in that half-hour of dinner service crush. Or, you can sous vide.

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