Thoughts on Sous-vide

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Far be it from me to suggest anything other than some salutary perspective-taking to esteemed and respected, not to mention respectable, professional chefs, but there seems to be the usual, if not slightly greater, fuss about the latest food sensation among the “hautes” – “sous-vide” or “under-emptiness” to be literal about the French origins of the term and the technique.

First, let me remind those who probably don’t need a lot of reminding, that there are esoteric, and hoary, cooking techniques, that make sous-vide look like Shake ‘n’ Bake® when it comes to tedious protracted exacting time-consuming attention. Making a classic cassoulet still takes three days, and I defy any vacuum-bag toting three-star ganzer k’nacker [yiddish for “big shot,” comrades] that there is a sous-vide methodology that makes a cassoulet a simple matter of keeping the thermostat at 140F on the bain marie for mere hours, and that the result will be the equivalent for textures, complexity, color, aromas, and sheer gustatory pleasure.

And speaking of Southwestern France, there’s the small matter of confit (the last newcomer to the hall, and now a staple on every lunch menu on the Upper East Side, whatever city we’re talking about), a method of cooking that dates back at least 1000 years and makes you wonder how those peasant clots, otherwise fearing (quite literally) for their immortal souls, and fending off such niceties as plague and long-bow bearing English yeomen, could come up with such a relatively simple, straightforward, non-technological (relatively speaking) method of cooking the random fowl to such a degree of melting, succulent, ambrosial tenderness, while also devising a no-muss, no-fuss methodology for preserving same for astounding lengths of time, given that the Sub-Zero (or even the Hobart) brand was some millennium to come. And now sous-vide trumps it, for the very same fowl. Allegedly, that is, if you believe the latest foolish truck that gets printed and passes for news. The implication of the testimonials is that try a duck thigh cooked in a sack and you’ll never go back to that gruesomely primitive, straightforward, lowly brown thing (for which La Goulue can still manage to extract upwards of ten bucks over a simple pile of baby herbs).

After the health department ministrations to the dangers of sous vide (they’d investigate fire, assuming Ugg and Mugg had just invented rubbing dry oak saplings until they ignited, and happened to notice that the lamb shank that dropped accidentally into the fire had acquired a certain “je ne sais quoi” when extracted from the embers an hour later — it’s the JOB of the health department to make sure the health of the public is not endangered; simple huh?; there’s nothing in the statutes about common sense… theirs or yours, but there is the presumption of scientific principle); after the equipment comes down in price, and after Williams-Sonoma has put the slew of sous-vide cookbook classics on after-Christmas markdown. After Target has put a down-market vacuum machine designed by either of the public’s favorite Mr. Designer Teapot, Mr. Starck or Mr. Graves, at the very popular under-one-hundred-dollar price point, and after Whole Foods offers their 365 store brand vacuum bags next to the dishwashing liquid that, well, doesn’t really clean anything… After all that, when sous-vide, done right, of course, is just another excuse to keep the cost of a really expensive evening out to dine to over two hundred dollars per person, not including alcohol, it will be, indeed, what it has been since the French found themselves at that nexus of time and invention in the 60s that allowed its innovation. Just another way to cook, with a particular, if not a peculiar, and certainly distinctive (and, yes, highly attractive) set of gustatory characteristics of its own. Just as braising isn’t sauteeing, and roasting isn’t boiling, and frying isn’t sun-drying.

It’s another of those familiar Air Field Marshal Goering moments for me, which I like to quote. “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol…” Now, when I hear the word sous-vide, and when I hear that, I know I will hear on the heels of its utterance, “unlike any… the ultimate… the tenderest… most flavorful…” and when I hear those fulsome, incredible (as in “don’t believe it;” as in, “no Virginia, there is no cure for Cancer”) adjectives and prepositions, pronouns and nouns, and whatever other parts of speech inspire PR consultants, not to mention the greater majority of the populace, including chefs, who should attend to their specialty or craft, rather than to rhetoric, I reach for my braising pan…

I’m sure there’s a substantive, and provable, difference between the claims for the product of sous-vide (which is a process, after all, and not the product) and the claims for the product of foaming (or cryogenic centrifuging, if you must have an esoteric and expensive technological component), but I think, functionally (and almost exclusively to the food and hospitality industries) it all amounts to the same thing. It’s an excuse to charge a lot of money for cooked food.

I predict:

No great cook will ever go broke not preparing a thing sous-vide. I prefer to think of it in the end as what the French have said all along is what it is, less than a big nothing.

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