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
Top-Tier Chefs Use High-Tech, High-Speed Cooking to Feed Katrina Evacuees

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.

It's also an effective way for a chef to consistently turn out the same quality dish, day after day. "If I tell [the line cook] to cook the salmon sous vide at 130 degrees for 45 minutes, it will come out moist and perfectly cooked all the way through every time," says chef Michel Richard, who has five of the machines at his Citronelle restaurant in Georgetown.

At the Armory, the chefs' use of sous vide entrees meant a huge savings in time. Instead of having to be cooked from scratch for 400 people, the food needed only to be taken out of the bags, reheated and transported in insulated containers to the Armory, which doesn't have kitchen facilities.

The entrees were donated by Cuisine Solutions, an Alexandria-based firm that has been a pioneer in sous vide production in the United States. (As interest in sous vide has grown, the company's stock has shot up from $1 per share in 2004 to $7.45 as of Monday.)

Stanislas Vilgrain, the chief executive of Cuisine Solutions, along with two of the company's top executives, helped prepare the food served at the Armory. Richard rounded up several of his fellow chefs to assist, and the cooking was done at D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that helps feed the homeless and is providing three meals a day to the evacuees until they are resettled.

Among the downtown chefs helping Richard with the food were Roberto Donna of Galileo, Todd Gray of Equinox and Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro. Mark Furstenberg of Breadline donated all the bread.

Of course, chefs being chefs, it wasn't quite enough just to reheat the food. They had to tinker a little while it was still at D.C. Central Kitchen, adding sautéed onions and cream to the pasta sauce or some roasted red pepper pesto and Parmesan cheese to the polenta.

While the other chefs worked, Richard made a quick dessert from scratch. Using ingredients donated to the kitchen, he swiftly filled a dozen or more frozen pie crusts with canned fruit, then added a custard filling he and Donna made from six quarts of heavy cream, five dozen eggs and 15 pounds of ricotta cheese.

As the pies baked, Richard talked about sous vide. Initially, he admitted, he wasn't much of a fan. "When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Aw, just another stupid machine.' "

But now he's a convert. At Citronelle, he uses sous vide machines to make virtually all the entrees on his menu, including short ribs braised for 72 hours until they're buttery soft, or pheasant that's slow-poached to keep it plump and moist.

"In a way," he says, "it's cooking like your grandma did -- slowly, slowly."

Gray, the chef-owner of Equinox, has one sous vide machine and another one on order. He believes the process will have far-reaching implications for chefs.

"It's going to change how we cook, how we organize our day, even the amount of space we need in the kitchen. With sous vide, you don't need as many pots and pans," he says.

Gerard Bertholon, vice president of Cuisine Solutions, takes it a step further. "Sous vide will replace the line cook," he predicts.

"Hotels are already having a very hard time finding skilled line cooks. With sous vide, you don't need to hire someone to make 300 chickens and worry if they'll all come out the same. The machine does it and the first one comes out exactly like the 300th."

Food safety issues arose early in sous vide's development because of the low cooking temperature.

Botulism concerns made sous vide fade from popularity when it was first introduced in France about 30 years ago. Since then, there have been improvements in the equipment and method.

In this country, the Food and Drug Administration's 2005 Food Code sets out strict procedures, including chilling the bagged products to 34 degrees and storing them for no more than 30 days, to eliminate the possibility of listeria or botulism poisoning.

From a cooking standpoint, CityZen's Ziebold cautions that sous vide has some drawbacks. For one, it can't produce a crispy texture.

"When I cook a guinea hen leg sous vide, I have to crisp the skin for 30 seconds in a hot skillet before I serve it. Sous vide is not the answer for how to cook everything. It's just another technique, like grilling," he says.

And then there's the matter of aroma. The one thing Ziebold says he really misses using sous vide is the irresistible aroma of food as it cooks.

"When you roast a chicken in the oven, the whole kitchen fills with that heavenly aroma. When you open a sous vide bag with chicken, you don't smell anything."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company