When you go to restaurants, you’ll encounter on the menu items like 72-hour steak or 62 degrees egg. In recent years, restaurants have increasingly been using the method of sous vide to cook their food, that is, they wrap the food in a bag and immerse the bag in a water bath of a certain temperature so that the food gets cooked very slowly. Because it gets cooked very slowly over a long time, the food remains succulent, retaining moisture while becoming very tender. This is food science.
The technology has become available for home cooks at a very affordable price of about US$100. For home cooks, it is great. You put the food in the sous vide machine in the morning, go to work, and come home to a delicious dinner.
For chefs, it’s just plain lazy. I go to restaurants and I see that many dishes on the menu are sous vide-d. Why am I paying my hard-earned money to eat something I can easily manage at home?
The role of a professional chef is to create something that an amateur home cook could not do. We cannot cure ourselves so we go to a doctor. We cannot write a will so we go to a lawyer. Similarly, a professional chef must demonstrate her or his culinary powress, something that a layperson could not achieve. A head chef is not only the most experienced chef in the kitchen; he or she must possess the best cooking techniques and most innovative ideas.
Tell me: how can chefs demonstrate good cooking techniques when all they have to do is put food in a water bath, something a 5 year-old can be instructed to do?
Besides that it is lazy and unprofessional for a chef to sous vide many dishes, it also shows the lack of range of their culinary skills. When I visited a restaurant recently, I ordered a few dishes and most dishes were sous vide-d. I immediately assumed that the chef is lousy, having to depend on a machine, and not showing any cooking skills.
There are talks of machines taking over professional occupations. Doctors, lawyers, and bankers are replaced by automatons. What makes cooks irreplaceable by machines is the human touch behind the food, that there is a possibility that the dish may fail and turn out badly. This irreplaceability of chefs is a quixotic thought, of course, sooner or later we humans want perfection in the food and chefs will be replaced. But if all a restaurant does is sous vide the food, then automatons will replace chefs at an even faster pace.
So far, I’ve talked about the role of chefs in kitchens. In using sous vide machines, it is lazy, unprofessional, shows a lack of range of culinary skills, and a lack of human touch to the food.
Now I want to explicate the faults of the sous vide machine. When you sous vide a meat, the sinews break down; and that’s why sous vide-d meat, offering no bite, is so soft, melts in your mouth. But the thing is, it is inaccurate to call sous vide-d meat “tender”; sinews have disintegrated, such meat should be described as “smooth.” The difference is smooth food glides the tongue whereas you can feel some friction, some bite between the tongue and tender food.
For most of us, when we are cooking at home, we don’t really care about the subtle difference. But at a restaurant, we should care for the difference. Texture is important in food and I expect a professional chef to know the difference between smooth and tender textures. And a smooth texture is just no good.
The second fault of the sous vide machine is that you can’t sous vide everything but I’ve seen chefs try. Some chefs sous vide fish. A fresh fish requires nothing more than a quick pan-fry. When you sous vide a fish, the “fishiness” gets trapped in the bag, accentuating the “fishiness” of the dish.
This is not to say that a chef should not sous vide any food. A sous vide machine is a tool like a pressure cooker, an oven, a juicer. A sous vide machine is like truffle oil. It is silly that some ignorant people are against truffle oil because they think that it’s a cheap ploy to add artificial taste and rip customers off. But top chefs in the world, like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, use truffle oil because when it is employed well to enhance food–see this wonderful stir-fried vegetables for example–the superb taste justifies the usage of the oil.
Similarly, when a chef uses a sous vide machine, they should ask themselves: is it professional of me to use it? Can a home cook use it under instructions and achieve the same results? Have I exhausted all other cooking methods–baking, pickling, blanching, simmering, macerating, grilling, sauteing, broiling, braising, stewing, curing, steaming, confit-ing, fermenting, frying, poaching, boiling, roasting, pan-frying, stir-frying, toasting? Does my menu show a range of dishes using various cooking methods? Will sous vide enhance the food or am I just lazy, seeking the convenient method? Is sous vide respectful to the ingredients? Will sous vide ruin the texture and increase the gaminess?
Sous vide should be the last resort for a chef. For the rest of us cooking at home, our dinner still depends on it.
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Image credit: Toothpaste for Dinner
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
Categories: 6. Others