White is everywhere. The walls glisten in white. The 10 employees are clad in white lab coats, white hairnets, white rubber boots and plastic gloves. The only color the eye notices is the dark red spattering of barbecue sauce from the seven tons of spareribs -- 14,000 orders in all -- being processed.
The scene looks straight out of the future. Only, it is now, unfolding in a three-month-old Vie de France processing plant in Alexandria. Two food preparers dip the precut ribs into a five-gallon vat of barbecue sauce, shake off the excess and carefully drop the ribs into plastic bags held by two colleagues.
As the bags are filled, another worker piles them on a stainless steel cart and then pushes it through the blinding white halls, making sure the cart's wheels touch the pools of aseptic chemicals placed frequently and strategically throughout the plant.
The ribs are headed to the packaging room where two women use a high-tech machine to seal the bags, four at a time. Then the bags are dropped carefully into one of six 400-gallon stainless steel vats, about 5 feet deep and 3 feet wide, where they are immersed in water and cooked at about 150 degrees for 16 hours. Except for an occasional spot checker, the ribs cook alone. The small computer in the back, however, whizzes away, monitoring the ribs as they cook to a tender light brown.
Yes, the new age of food processing -- in appearance at least, if not yet completely in taste -- has come to the Washington area.
As the ribs simmer in Alexandria, a comparable procedure is being followed some 30 miles away in Laurel. There, at Grace Culinary Systems' year-old food processing plant, another white-clad employee wears a sterile mask over his mouth as he vacuum packs raw chicken, beef and fish fillets for similar low-temperature, high-moisture cooking. In this case, however, the oven is a 10-foot-long cylinder tipped on its side and the cooking is done by 185-degree water that "rains" on the packages. Once again, nohumans are present; a computer adjacent to the oven is in charge.
Both Vie de France and Grace Culinary are using a state-of-the-art process that relies more on engineering and science than traditional kitchen techniques.
"The classic culinary skills are there but it is guided by food science," says Bill Lyman, Grace Culinary's vice president for research and development.
The state-of-the-art process is sous-vide and it was developed in the 1970s by acclaimed French chefs who were looking for innovative ways to improve the taste and quality of their creations. Although widely used in Europe, sous-vide has been very slow to catch on here -- a result of both food safety concerns and difficulties in timely nationwide distribution of fresh food. Only one other large-scale operation exists in the United States: Culinary Brands in California.
Its novelty here makes sous-vide's quality even more erratic than it is in Europe, where the quality varies greatly. Food experts report having had some of their best meals ever with European sous-vide food -- but also some of the worst. However, these same experts say that while American sous-vide meals also cover a wide range, the highs are not as memorable.
Literally, sous-vide means "under vacuum." Food is cooked by circulating steam or water around sealed plastic pouches for several hours at low temperatures. The pouches are then refrigerated, or most likely frozen in the U.S., which may be one reason that sous-vide foods here are inferior to those served in Europe. The pouches are kept refrigerated or frozen until they are needed, at which time they are reheated in hot water.
This process was created by a French chef and a university food scientist as a way to improve the cooking of foie gras. They discovered that cooking foie gras in a sealed pouch at a lower-than-usual temperature resulted in not only a better flavor but also more foie gras.
The better flavor comes from sealing all the juices, flavor and nutrients in the bag so they cannot escape. And since the food is not subjected to high and/or dry heat, the damage to the food's cell structure is minimized, resulting in a fresher flavor and food so tender, if done properly, that it can be cut with a fork. The yield is increased because the food does not shrink as much as it does if cooked in the traditional high and dry heat.
Chefs have found that sous-vide works best for grilled and poached dishes; "Anything with breaded or fried food, you can't do because sous-vide will make it like glue," says Gerard Bertholon, Vie de France's corporate executive chef.
In the U.S., sous-vide is being looked to as a solution to an increasingly chronic labor shortage, particularly in restaurants and hotels. The hope is that instead of having to train hundreds of chefs, a handful of chefs can be used to prepare the food at a central plant. The food then would be shipped to hotels and restaurants where it would be reheated as needed -- all without losing the fresh taste.
What's more, a single sous-vide product can be used to create scores of different dishes, depending on the sauces and garnishes a restaurateur selects. A grilled chicken breast, for example, can be turned into chunky chicken salad, sliced chicken sandwich, stir-fried chicken with vegetables, chicken with sweet and sour sauce, a hearty stew or a light entree served with mustard sauce on top of baby vegetables.
It's no wonder then that Marriott Corp. is working closely with Vie de France, trying out numerous products to see where sous-vide can fit into its large and multifaceted food operation. The barbecued ribs being cooked in the Vie de France plant were, in fact, for Marriott, which is testing sous-vide in 29 hotels and 11 airport operations.
"The results have been very positive and the convenience has been ideal," says Ron Edelmann, senior purchasing agent for Marriott. "We eventually see a real place for it because we want to continue to grow as a company, but we don't see a flow of culinary expertise coming into the marketplace. Sous-vide helps us to solve some of the labor issues."
Meanwhile, for the food processing companies, sous-vide is being looked to as a way to survive, if not thrive.
"We see a real need for prepared foods in the future," says Gregory Carey, general manager of Grace Culinary, which for years has made baked goods, soups and sauces at a central plant and then shipped them to stores, hotels and restaurants, including its own chain of American Cafe eateries.
"Sous-vide now gives us the opportunity to do more entrees for food-service operators. Previously, preparing entrees didn't really work very well in a commissary setting. If you did it traditionally, the food would be twice cooked and the quality suffered. That's how you got airplane food," Carey says.
Sous-vide is even more critical for the future of Vie de France, which has posted losses for the past two years. With the decline in its restaurant business and stiffer competition in its croissant and bakery business, Vie de France now is looking to sous-vide as the tonic for its revival.
"It's an integral part of the future of Vie de France's strategy," says president Richard M. Tolbert, explaining why the financially troubled company spent $2.6 million to build its 30,000 square-foot plant in Alexandria. Now churning out about 18,000 sous-vide meals a day, the plant could ultimately handle 70,000 meals daily.
"Sous-vide can be the boost to our future," says Tolbert, "like the croissant was" 13 years ago when the company introduced the frozen croissant to America. "That got Vie de France off the ground. Now with sous-vide, we will be one of the few companies in this country that can offer a full dinner experience, from entree to dessert. The only thing we'll be lacking is wine and cheese. Sous-vide will also make our restaurant operations more viable for the future. Now, they are primarily breakfast and lunch operations. With the right priced sous-vide entrees, they can become dinner operations as well."
To build the sous-vide plant here, Vie de France relied on the experience of its French sister company, Nouvelle Carte, which has been working with sous-vide since 1982, supplying fresh meals for first class train service, hotels, restaurants and the deli department in France's largest supermarket chain. The American plant, however, differs dramatically from the French operation because the U.S. meals are shipped frozen.
Vie de France officials say that the country's size is much to blame for this. It has been virtually impossible to deliver and sell a fresh product nationwide within 10 days at an acceptable price.
That is the chief reason why Culinary Brands, regarded by food processing officials as the leader in sous-vide, recently abandoned its extensive experiment in coast-to-coast direct store delivery of fresh food.
Freezing sous-vide also reduces some of the food-safety concerns expressed by federal health officials. Although Food and Drug Administration officials have not encountered any major health problems, they have said repeatedly that they are concerned that improperly packaged refrigerated foods could allow the growth of bacteria such as botulism and listeriosis. Yet, the harmless organisms that give off bad odors signaling spoilage would have been killed at the temperatures used in sous-vide cooking.
"By freezing the product, we've taken the fear factor out of sous-vide," says Stanislas Vilgrain, president of the Vie de France subsidiary that oversees sous-vide. "There is no activity of water so there is no bacterial activity."
However, freezing may eliminate the chief benefit of sous-vide -- minimal damage to the food's cell structure.
"Whenever you freeze any food, there is a loss of quality; it's unavoidable," says Bob Harrington, assistant director of technical services for the National Restaurant Association. "There is some moisture loss and some rupturing of the cells."
Whether it is because the food was frozen or because of other problems in the cooking process, it is clear that the taste and quality of sous-vide food still has a way to go, based on several different Washington-area tastings.
At Vie de France's National Airport restaurant, five sous-vide entrees are being offered along with the traditional menu of soup, salads and burgers. However, on-the-run travelers will be hard-pressed to sample the dishes, which range from pork tenderloin with sweet and sour sauce (the cheapest, at $11.25) to red snapper with a light tarragon sauce to rack of lamb (the highest priced at $17.95). It takes nearly 30 minutes for the kitchen to thaw the entrees and bring them up to serving temperature. Vie de France officials say they are working on ways to speed up the process. As it now works, the entrees are removed from a freezer and put in a small but deep stainless steel sink filled with 200-degree water. The food is held there for a specified time that has been predetermined by laboratory tests. According to these tests, a single serving of frozen rack of lamb must be held for 18 minutes; snapper for 12.
The snapper showed the effects of being frozen; it was mealy and dry. The pork tenderloin was "mystery meat," one diner commented. Usually round, the meat was square shaped (the effect of vacuum packaging) and gray in color. Even worse, it had no distinctive taste and was dry -- not moist enough to be cut by a fork as properly prepared sous-vide is supposed to be.
Similarly, the steak au poivre came out gray and chewy, even though the diner ordered it rare. The waiter later acknowledged that it wasn't possible to make the meat rare, only pink. Vilgrain says it is possible to get steak rare but the restaurant is reheating the product improperly -- an ongoing problem there, Vilgrain notes. Meanwhile, the rack of lamb was gray and tough, not the melt-in-your-mouth quality normally associated with that elegant dish.
Products made by Grace Culinary kitchens fared somewhat better -- not only in serving time (10 minutes from ordering) but also in taste and texture, probably because Grace Culinary ships the bulk of its sous-vide products refrigerated, not frozen.
Barbecued chicken served at an American Cafe was so moist and tender it could be cut by a fork -- even the normally dry white breast meat. The barbecue taste, however, had to be perked up with a side dish of sauce.
At the Fairfax City Holiday Inn, where Grace sous-vide products are served, the grilled chicken breast and shrimp scampi were both tasty. Yet, the chicken was rather dry and the shrimp a bit gummy -- perhaps the result of freezing, acknowledged Richard Brokaw, the hotel's director of food and beverage. Although Holiday Inn receives the sous-vide dishes fresh, the hotel will freeze many of the packaged meals if they cannot be used before the expiration dates.
At both American Cafe and the Holiday Inn, all the dishes were lukewarm; none was piping hot. That is a problem inherent with sous-vide, Brokaw admitted. "The premise is to bring the food up to temperature instead of pulling the food off the grill at its peak. If it's too hot, then you are recooking the food and it becomes over dry."
The deli in the Georgetown Safeway sold Grace Culinary sous-vide (from meat loaf to poached salmon) for six weeks but the products were discontinued because they "just simply didn't sell," according to Safeway.
Sous-vide "still has a way to go," says Marriott's Edelmann. "We will use it as a resource and put it into new markets where we don't want to put thousands of dollars of investment ... There will be a mortality list of products. But we're still pretty bullish about it."