Seeing Sous Vide

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

A final application of sous vide is that it allows smaller restaurants to do their purchasing like big ones do. At Auriga they have been buying full suckling pigs, breaking them down, portioning the meat, roasting the bones and making stock, and cooking the meat in individual bags with the stock, along with chestnuts, herbs, and olive oil.

"We end up with 70 portions of cooked suckling pig, and while it may take me a week to go through them all, the last one tastes just as fresh as the first one," chef Flicker told me. "If I were to cut all that meat and just leave it raw in my cooler, I wouldn't have anywhere near the freshness I get sous vide-ing. And ultimately that's one of the goals of the cooking, to have things be as fresh tasting as they can be."

The freshness factor goes double, or triple, for more delicate ingredients, like foie gras or fresh fish. "Sous vide is much stronger than a fad; I would say it's a fairly revolutionary tool in a restaurant kitchen," concludes Flicker. "For a cook it's a new world to explore."

Of course, one of his best friends would beg to differ. Steven Brown, chef at Restaurant Levain, was probably the first chef in Minnesota to get a full-scale, expensive sous vide setup, and yet has become the technique's most vocal detractor. "I think with chefs there's a tendency to grab hold of these things and say, 'Look, it's the wheel reinvented!" Brown told me. "But it's not. Take the egg thing. When I worked with Doug Flicker at Auriga we were messing around a lot with eggs--temperature and texture and so on. We got to this point where we could soft-boil an egg for six minutes, run it under cold water to stop the cooking, peel it, and hold them. Then when someone ordered a salad with the poached egg, we would plunk it in hot water and warm it again. To me, that was a much better egg than the sous vide egg.

"We sous vide-ed a beef tenderloin and it was awful, it looked raw. We sous vide sea bass right now, but we sear the skin when it comes out, to crisp it up. It's really good, but it's not the sous vide that makes it extraordinary, the sous vide is just one step in a lengthy process," concludes Brown. "For the most part, I don't find sous vide to be earth-shattering."

Please note, however, that Restaurant Levain uses the process for several main proteins on its dinner menu, as well as for artichokes (which otherwise turn brown when exposed to air, or require overwhelming amounts of acid from lemon juice or something similar to prevent them from browning), and fennel (which quickly loses flavor as it cooks), and for packing and freezing vegetables at the height of summer flavor (look for local Riverbend Farm peppers in the dead of winter, courtesy of the little vacuum pouches), and even for crème anglaise, a cooked, egg-based pastry component that, otherwise, usually develops hard-cooked egg bits.

"So you can sit there filtering scrambled egg globules, or you can throw it all in a sous vide bag, set the timer, walk away, and there it is. Okay, so it does have some great advantages, but it's not the panacea people say it is," says Brown. "It takes a lot of work and experimentation, and I definitely don't think everyone should just rush out and buy one. In five years we'll know if it's here to stay, like the immersion blender, or not.

"Some restaurants I think are totally going overboard with it, like Alinea in Chicago, where they've got one stove for the whole restaurant and everything else is sous vide. Is that a good thing? I don't think we should all turn our backs on fire just because it seems a little harsh and archaic. Do we want life to be all clean like that, in medical-grade bags? Don't you think there's an immortal aspect of having a piece of meat on a stick over a fire?"

Yes, I do. I also think it's vaguely immortal to introduce a totally new topic, and get the inevitable backlash in, all in the same story.

Still, every conversation I had with chefs indicated that various aspects of sous vide are being used in almost every single one of our local taste-making kitchens, including ones that won't mention the fact on their menus. The mystery of why some kitchens conceal their sous vide-ing was also answered as I spoke to various chefs. Some don't mention it because they fear their customers will think they're serving "boil-in-bag" food made off-site. Some don't mention it because they see it as merely another element in a dish, in the same way that no one bothers putting the descriptor "cake-pan baked" in front of "chocolate cake."

Still, with results this good, and use this widespread, it's probably safe to say that this particular cooking cat is, now and forever, out of the bag.

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