Correction to This Article
The byline was dropped from an Oct. 5 Food article about sous vide cooking. The article was written by Candy Sagon.

Five-Star Food for 400: It All Starts in the Bag

Stanislas Vilgrain, chief executive of Cuisine Solutions in Alexandria, which donated food at the D.C. Armory, gets a big thank-you from Clarence Robinson of New Orleans.
Stanislas Vilgrain, chief executive of Cuisine Solutions in Alexandria, which donated food at the D.C. Armory, gets a big thank-you from Clarence Robinson of New Orleans. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Here's a math problem for you: How did five top Washington chefs prepare nine courses to feed 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuees and get all the cooking done in just over an hour?

We were not talking deli sandwiches and soup here. This was a nine-course menu served for three nights recently at the D.C. Armory that included such elegant entrees as braised beef in balsamic and black pepper sauce, blanquette of monkfish, roast poussin stuffed with wild rice, grilled salmon with Cajun cream sauce and vegetarian ratatouille raviolini.

The evacuees and crisis workers who lined up for the sumptuous meal gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "I've never had five-star meal in my life," said Clarence Robinson, one of the evacuees.

So how did the chefs pull it off so quickly?

The answer: sous vide .

Sous vide (soo-VEED) is French for "under vacuum," but it might as well be French for "a better way to prepare pre-cooked food that people will actually want to eat."

It's a trend that has been seized upon by huge food-service providers as well as some of the biggest-name chefs here and in Europe.

The sous vide process means food is cooked in airtight plastic bags in a precisely controlled water bath at a low temperature, which preserves -- even intensifies -- the food's flavor and texture. The food is then frozen. When it is reheated, usually by simmering the bag in water, it tastes and looks freshly cooked -- a far cry from the mushy boil-in-the-bag food that was its precursor decades ago.

The process works, chefs say, because the bags seal in the juices and flavors as the food cooks so it doesn't lose color or dry out. The moving water in the water bath helps the food heat evenly, and the low temperature produces a firm but tender texture.

Sous vide is being used to serve food to large numbers of people at hotels and casinos, on airplanes and cruise ships, and in the military. Costco is selling some sous vide-prepared entrees, such as lamb shanks with rosemary and mint sauce, in its frozen food section, and supermarket chains such as Wegmans and Safeway are using some sous vide items in their prepared-food departments.

Sous vide is also a favorite of many top-tier chefs, who say the technique can be used to create unique, individual dishes for their discerning clientele.

Eric Ziebold of CityZen in Washington's Mandarin Oriental Hotel has a $1,700 sous vide machine about the size of a stand mixer sitting on the counter in his restaurant's kitchen, which he uses to make a vivid papaya confit, duck breast infused with truffle juice and "canned" green peaches that are light-years away from the version his mother used to make. "I can make things with it that would be impossible to make any other way," he says.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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