COMPLAINTS ABOUT airline food pale in light of complaints about airport restaurants, but at National Airport Vie de France hopes to turn that impression around. If it works, the method could also improve the image of airline food, banquet meals and mass-production restaurants. Without having a French chef in the kitchen, the Vie de France restaurant in National Airport's main terminal is serving meals such as red snapper with tarragon sauce and rack of lamb with brown mint sauce, all cooked ahead in plastic pouches in an Alexandria factory and reheated in hot water.
The process is called sous vide (French for "under vacuum"). Developed in the 1970s in France by three-star chefs intrigued with the possibility of sealing in every aromatic nuance, the method is essentially a refined version of the familiar boil-in-bags, but starting with raw ingredients. While sous vide was originally developed to intensify the flavor of the finished product, it was adapted as a way to store and market fully cooked foods. The vacuum sealing allows foods to be stored for a week or two without deterioration. Vie de France Culinary, as the local sous vide company is called, has been in operation for a little more than a month.
In the factory, individual portions of meat are seared, vacuum-bagged and bathed in hot water for two hours (for various foods water temperatures range from 137 to 160 degrees), emerging at the end still rare. Vegetables are similiarly cooked in individual portions. The method works for grilled, roast, stewed or poached foods, though not breaded or fried. Sauces are cooked separately in 300-gallon pots, then herbs are added and the individually packaged sauces are pasteurized. The plastic bags are refrigerated (or in Vie de France's case, frozen), and delivered to the restaurant for storage and reheating.
At the restaurant, the packages are heated in a 135-degree water bath and can be kept there two to six hours. When a diner orders the item, it is plunged into 200-degree water for 30 seconds to bring it to serving temperature, a little longer if the diner prefers well-done rather than rare meat. Then a meal is assembled from a mix-and-match set of meats and fish, sauces and vegetables. The chicken breast or rack of lamb can be served Japanese style, Italian style, French style or California style.
"We're not cutting the chef out," says Gerard Bertholon, Vie de France corporate executive chef. "No way. We're just saving time for him." Bertholon explains that sous vide leaves the chef time to garnish, to carve zucchini flowers if he wants. "That's the chef's creativity."
Rather than tasting Vie de France Culinary's sous vide in the restaurant, I tried it in the factory, reheated by Bertholon in the company's own Sous Vide Reheating Unit Model 2, which Vie de France hopes to sell along with its food products. The sauces came out excellent -- smooth, silky, indistinguishable from freshly made and bright with flavor. They were certainly better than the sauces one would expect from mass production. Seafood, however, suffered from the freezing: Salmon was dry, and cut into shreds rather than moist flakes; scallops were soft but oddly uniform in their texture; clams in a clam sauce tasted like any other frozen clams. Vegetables, too, had a texture identifiable as frozen, their surface limp though they were clearly not overcooked. Pork came out best -- juicy, tender and with its delicate flavor preserved. But while the flavor was excellent in the beef and lamb, the texture was a little limp, too soft, and the pink meats looked juicier than they tasted.
Bertholon was apologetic about some of the lamb being nearly custardy in texture and tasting reheated -- it had been stored badly, he said. And he explained that "you have to consider this different. You have poached fish, you have grilled fish, you have sous vide. The texture is different. You cannot compete with a grilled steak. It is just a new way of eating something."
Sous vide is expensive for restaurants. The rack of lamb sells for $5.65, salmon $5.25, sauces about $1 each and vegetables $1 to $2.50 each. Most restaurants aim for a 30- to 33-percent food cost, which would mean that the lamb with sauce and a vegetable would have to sell for at least $23 to $26. But Bertholon says that since sous vide controls portion size and waste in addition to cutting labor costs, restaurants could afford a 40 to 45 percent food cost. Thus the lamb platter should sell for $17 to $19; at the National Airport restaurant it is $17.95.
In the meantime, Vie de France is directing its product line more downscale -- to teriyaki chicken, Salisbury steak, barbecued ribs and chicken salad -- while continuing such upscale items as the grilled New York strip, standing rib roast and grilled shark. A couple hundred restaurants have sampled a case or two, says Bertholon, but "we haven't made a big sale yet."
Ultimately Vie de France hopes to produce 70,000 sous vide meals a day, and sell them to hotels, retirement homes, executive dining rooms, restaurants, caterers and other food-service providers. Can airlines be far behind?
Phyllis C. Richman's restaurant reviews appear Sundays in The Washington Post Magazine.