SAUSALITO, CALIF. -- It may sound like leftover boiled lamb chops, but sous-vide (vacuum cooking in a plastic bag) tastes like something else. Rack of lamb can come out more tender, more flavorful, juicier than any conventionally roasted lamb. The seasonings permeate the meat, the juices and volatile flavors are held within the muscle and tenderness is intensified. When reheated, it tastes freshly cooked.

At least that's the way the rack of lamb emerged that I sampled at Culinary Brands, Inc., the newest of the U.S.'s four sous-vide producers. Sous-vide, which translates as "under vacuum," was developed in France's haute-cuisine restaurants as a modern adaptation of papillote, or sealed parchment package, cooking.

This modern vacuum cooking allows cooked foods to be kept as long as three weeks without freezing or using preservatives, and with little or no loss of quality. And it makes it possible to serve a thousand diners simultaneously simply by immersing plastic bags in hot water for 3 to 5 minutes.

Hotel chains, railroads and caterers have been using the process in Europe. Gerard Rubaud, of Gerard's Haute Cuisine in Fairfax, Vt., has been selling it to Bloomingdale's for a special carryout section, to corporate dining rooms and New Jersey supermarkets, and serving it in his "kitchenless" Vermont restaurant. Such diverse companies as Campbell Soup Co., Silver Birch Farms of Indianapolis and an Atlanta pheasant farm have been experimenting with it.

Culinary Brands combined the talents of two French chefs -- Eric Carre, who brought the process from France to New Orleans' Petroleum Club; and Robert Ayme, who trained at Maxim's in Paris before working in San Francisco -- with the mass-feeding know-how of Carl Randall and David Shick of the Saga Corporation. The Stadium Club restaurant in Candlestick Park regularly uses its salmon, rack of lamb and prime rib. Manager Kevin Blackman praises the products because there is no waste: "You can't ruin something by, say, one of your chefs calling in sick." With sous-vide, the restaurant can serve 200 to 300 people in two hours before a ballgame; adds Blackman, "It's kind of foolproof, as long as you have a watch and boiling water and a good pair of scissors." And most important, he continues, "The rack of lamb is the best I've ever tasted, bar none."

Culinary Brands overlooks the bay in Sausalito, with windsurfers nearly at its doorstep. On the porch of the clapboard two-story building, a chef in white toque is watering the herbs. It is a far cry from most food plants.

In the kitchen, which has combination locks on every door, the staff wear white knee-high rubber boots, masks, hairnets and plastic gloves. They work in an "almost de-bacterized kitchen," explains Carre; since the process does not involve freezing or sterilizing, and the foods tend to be only lightly cooked, cleanliness is even more critical than in most kitchens.

The products of this kitchen are mix-and-match components of a meal: salmon fillets poached or with grill marks, vermouth sauce or cold tomato-basil sauce to moisten them. Baby carrots or pencil-slim asparagus spears might be added to the plate, along with steamed rice or rice pilaf with lemon confit and roasted pine nuts. Or the rice pilaf might accompany rack of lamb, which could be served with a cabernet, madeira, tarragon or mint sauce.

No way has been found to produce fried foods under vacuum, and while grilled dishes may look grilled, they don't have a crusty texture. Browned, crisped dishes such as breast of duck can be produced, but it is tricky, requiring a careful searing of the skin that falls just short of burning. On the other hand, new dishes can be created, the likes of pears stuffed with cantaloupe and poached in syrup. And, Carre boasts, the process allows mass production with the same quality as small-quantity cooking, since there is not the usual evaporation and inconsistent heat penetration.

One problem is that reheating can be mishandled; bags should not be boiled, merely warmed in water that has been brought to a boil and then the heat turned off (160 degrees is perfect, says Carre). And the dishes are expensive; they wholesale at about $1 for a portion of soup, $4 for an entree, plus the cost of the sauce and vegetables. Since these prices incorporate labor, equipment, shrinkage and waste, restaurants and stores can consider them profitable at 45 percent food cost as opposed to the usual 25 to 30 percent of the menu price.

Culinary Brands can design its recipes to order, for example a turtle soup for the Velvet Turtle restaurant, oyster and artichoke soup or shrimp with four peppers for a New Orleans-style restaurant. But what if a diner wants his fish more well-done or his food without salt? Shrugs Carre, "We are doing cooking, we are not doing miracles."

Sous-vide can, however, change people's living habits, says executive vice president David Shick. At Culinary Brands, he says, a lot of people grab a sous-vide dinner on their way home. "You take a bag with you in a hot tub and you're off and running."

Tabletalk Light cuisine is going too far when the California legislature tries to make a pound 15.5 ounces (to cover possible evaporation and shrinkage after packaging).

And nutritional claims are going too far when the Chocolate World tour in Hershey, Pa., stresses the nutritious aspects of chocolate bars.

Where does most of your grocery money go? Surely to Phillip Morris/General Foods, which topped sales of every other food company this year with its $14.8 billion dollar volume. Coca-Cola Co., came in third with $6.8 billion, Sara Lee was ninth with $5.6 billion, and that is a lot of cheesecakes.

SOUS VIDE SHRIMP AND SCALLOP STEW IN BANANA SAUCE (2 servings)

1/4 cup diced onion

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

4 teaspoons mild salsa

2 teaspoons mango chutney

1/4 pound shrimp, peeled

5 ounces sea scallops

4 teaspoons cream

2 tablespoons dried banana slices

1 tablespoon cashews

1 tablespoon pistachios

2 teaspoons almond liqueur such as Frangelico

Saute' onion in butter very lightly; don't let it begin to brown. Add curry, salsa and chutney. Cut a large square of aluminum foil. Put shrimp and scallops in center and top with curry mixture. Fold foil into an envelope, turning edges under to seal thoroughly, and bake 4 minutes at 350 degrees. Open foil and strain seafoods. Bring any accumulated juices to a boil in a small pan, add cream and cook 3 minutes. Add banana, cashews and pistachios. Cook 3 minutes more. Stir liqueur into sauce and pour over seafoods. Serve with rice or with a julienne of carrot and turnip that has been seasoned with ginger.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group