The Taste With Vir: How talentless chefs are using expensive sous-vide machines to drain the texture from our food and to make it all feel like wet sponge
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi explains the process of sous-vide that chefs adopt by packing ingredients in a vacuum in plastic bags and then suspending the bags in a low-temperature water bath for a long time.Updated: Mar 06, 2019 12:10 IST
If you have eaten at a fancy restaurant or at a party at a five star hotel where non-Indian food is served, then there is a strong chance that you have eaten food that has been cooked sous-vide. And yet, unless you are a chef, my guess is that you probably have no clue what sous-vide is.You may have just wondered why the meat tasted like all the texture had been removed from it.
For chefs, sous-vide is as important as pornography is to teenagers. It is a secret obsession that they can never get enough of. And unlike pornography, it is something that most people don’t really understand, so they don’t have to provide explanations to the outside world.
The difference is this: while some people believe that pornography poses no real danger to teens --- it might even provide a useful release for sex-crazed adolescents --- sous-vide poses a real threat to cooking. More expensive ingredients are destroyed each year because of sous-vide than any other cooking technique.
But first, what is sous-vide?
It is a way of packing ingredients in a vacuum in plastic bags and then suspending the bags in a low-temperature water bath for a long time – several hours even.
It is a technology that old-fashioned chefs hate because the process doesn’t look like cooking at all. As the writer Bee Wilson says, “the food, in its plastic looks alarmingly like medical samples or brains in formaldehyde. Another unsettling aspect is the total absence of aroma.”She is right: it does look like pathology samples.
If you have seen the movie Burnt in which Bradley Cooper plays a chef aiming for his third Michelin star, you will be familiar with the insults that Cooper hurls at the sous-vide style of cooking. His view is that all some chefs do is to pack the food into condoms and then let it slowly warm up.
This is an unkind --- but not entirely unreasonable ---- way of looking at sous-vide.
Though sous-vide is usually classed along with the techniques invented by the Spanish chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli, it is actually an older, French creation. In 1974, the Troisgros brothers who ran a Michelin three star restaurant, wondered how to cook foie gras. At that stage (as now) the best way to cook foie gras was to quickly sauté it in a pan. If done properly, the process yielded an escalope of foie gras where the outside was nicely caramelised while the inside was rich and buttery.
The problem was that foie gras is basically fat. Each time you sauté it, the fat melts. The Troisgros brothers feared that they were losing up to 50 per cent of the foie gras in the cooking process. So they began packing the goose liver in several sheets of plastic and then slow cooking it in water. The fat did not melt and drain away. It stayed in the plastic and kept its richness.(They seared it for a few seconds before serving it.)
That, at least, is the legend and French chefs credit the Troisgros brothers with inventing sous-vide.
The truth is little more complex. The basic technology has been around in the food business since the 1960s. Very large industrial companies have long vacuum sealed ingredients in plastic to keep them fresh. From there, it was a small step to cooking them in the same vacuum-packed plastic.
Apparently, when the Troisgros brothers had their foie gras problem, they consulted a company called Culinary Innovation, a subsidiary of Cryovac, the packaged food giant. That’s how the Troisgros learned about vacuum-cooking.
Now the French are proposing a tentative compromise on the invention of sous vide. The big companies like Cryovac invented vacuum packing and cooking but the Troisgros were the ones who realised it also had applications for restaurant cooking.
Even this compromise is a bit of a scam because sous-vide was already being used by the mass catering industry in the 1960s though nobody liked talking about it --- and this is long before the Troisgros brothers worried about their precious foie gras.
When you cook meat or chicken sous-vide, you end up with a tender piece of protein. It will cut easily. No part of it will be tough. You can immediately see how this benefits a caterer who is cooking a dinner for say 60 guests and wants to serve Coq au Vin to them. He will make the sauce separately, will cook the chickens in plastic sous vide bags and will then mix the two before serving. No guest will complain that the chicken was too tough.
Over the last decade, most catering events have involved prodigious use of sous-vide. The proteins are all cooked in plastic bags because that is the only way you can cook, say 40 pork chops and have them all ready for plating at the same time.
The worrying thing is that while sous-vide used to be the banquet chef’s dirty little secret, many modern chefs now brag about using it, naively believing that they are part of some molecular gastronomical revolution.
If I go to a sit-down dinner at a restaurant (i.e. banquet for over 20 people) and I find that the main course is say, lamb, I will ask if there is a vegetarian option or will skip the main course entirely. What the chef has probably done is dunked his plastic bags of lamb in a water bath at some stage in the afternoon. Then, just before the party he has lightly seared the lamb to give the impression that it has been freshly cooked.
My objection to sous-vide is that it runs counter to all the traditional rules for cooking meat. When you cook say, a steak or a lamb chop, you use radiating heat that cooks each part of the meat differently. A good steak, for instance, will have a nice crust on the outside and will be pink and juicy in the centre. A chunk of chicken tikka will have its edges charred by the tandoor and a melting moistness in the centre. A barra kabab has to taste significantly different on the outside than it does deep inside.
Each of these proteins will absorb the flavours from the way they are cooked. Some will taste chargrilled, some will have absorbed the smoke from the wood fires over which they are cooked, a kabab made a metal tandoor will taste different from one made in a clay tandoor, and so on.
This is what cooking meat is all about.
Sous-vide gives you none of these nuances. All of the meat is cooked to an even-doneness. There are no charred bits and no rare centres. I have yet to eat a sous-vide meat that did not have the texture of wet sponge.
Chefs say that sous-vide can yield interesting results with vegetables and that it can help preserve the flavours of fish but I don’t know a single chef of consequence in the West who now admits to cooking his meat sous-vide.
Not so with Indian chefs who are so delighted with their sous-vide machines that, even when they are doing a’ la carte service and should be cooking a’ la minute (as the orders come in) prefer to take bits of spongy meat that they have already cooked in their sous vide machines.They then pretend to make it fresh as per the customers orders.
I have even met chefs all over the world (though not in the last decade, thankfully!) who brag about using sous-vide. At the great Italian hotel, the Villa d’Este in Lake Como, I gave up all hopes of getting a good Bistecca Fiorentina when the head chef took me to his kitchen and showed me his sous-vide machine. “It makes everything soft!” he announced gleefully.
That was a while ago but Indian chefs still act as though sous-vide is something to be proud of. I guess it is because they have no sense of texture and are happy with meat that is tender but without any character. Foolishly, general managers who don’t really understand the technology, allow chefs to spend needless sums of money on sous-vide machines.
These days, I have a couple of basic tests for chefs. If a chef puts truffle oil on everything, then he doesn’t understand flavour. And if he uses sous-vide for all his proteins, then he doesn’t understand texture.
Would you want to eat food cooked by a chef who does not understand flavour or texture?
The answer is obvious.
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First Published: Mar 06, 2019 12:10 IST