Home' Technology Review : October 2005 Contents 12
From the Editor Jason Pontin
FROM THE EDITOR
O this summer, I dined at Char-
lie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen, a restaurant at-
tached to the Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma
County, CA. My dinner companion was my old-
est friend, Circe Sher, whose family owns the
hotel. We plowed through a six-course meal whose menu, when
we read it, seemed conventionally eclectic in its in uences and
very Northern Californian in its emphasis on local ingredients.
We ate a tomato consommé with a yellow tomato sorbet;
branzino, a form of Mediterranean sea bass, stu ed with tr u es
and wrapped in bacon; squab with chanterelle mushrooms on a
bed of foie gras; cumin-infused lamb; beef prepared two di er-
ent ways and presented with a variety of vegetables; and, for des-
sert, a peach tarte tatin.
But a mere transcription of the menu cannot suggest the
strangeness of the food. The squab was like nothing I had eaten
before: every mouthful tasted overpoweringly of squabbishness,
and the texture of the bird's esh, while not unpleasant, was
oddly silky. By the time I had nished the lamb, I knew some-
thing was up. It was evenly cooked throughout and tongue-
staggeringly gamy in its intensity, and, once again,
the texture was weirdly succulent---more like a fruit
or liquescent vegetable than meat.
"That's Michael, the new chef," Circe explained
smugly. She had anticipated my bewilder ment. "He's
really into sous vide."
Michael Voltaggio, the chef de cuisine at Dry
Creek Kitchen, is a proponent of a newly fashionable
style of cooking that is sometimes described as
"scienti c" cooking or, more Gallically, "hypermod-
er n" cuisine. It is aggressively technological: it bor-
rows techniques from industrial food preparation
and applies them to ne dining. Sous vide (in French, "under
vacuum") is its most remarkable and best-known innovation.
Ingredients are put into plastic bags and vacuum-packed (a pro-
cess called Cryovacking) and then cooked in warm water at low
temperatures for very long periods.
Backstage, Voltaggio's kitchen was more like a laboratory than
most kitchens of my experience: quieter, neater, and less anar-
chic. The chef, an austerely thin, red-haired young man, showed
o his Cryovac. It looked like nothing much, although such ma-
chines can cost thousands of dollars. Next to it was a stainless-
steel thermal circulator, or water bath, whose temperatures could
be adjusted to within a tenth of a degree.
Briskly, Voltaggio explained the bene ts of sous vide. High
temperatures damage food, he says, causing the cell walls of
meat, sh, and vegetables to burst; the damaged food cannot re-
absorb the juices it exudes as it cooks. By contrast, Voltaggio says,
the low temperature range of sous vide cooking cossets food and
creates very little exudation; and the her metic seal of the vacuum
pack permits what is exuded to be reabsorbed.
I asked Voltaggio how he had achieved his very tasty but
strangely glutinous lamb. "I cured it for 10 hours in salt and rose-
mary. Then I Cryovacked it with the cumin and cooked it at 58
degrees Celsius for 36 hours."
For gourmands, the person most associated with the applica-
tion of technology to food is Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, in Spain.
But the individuals really responsible for sous vide are a French
food scientist named Bruno Goussault (recently the subject of an
admiring pro le by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times
magazine) and his sometime collaborator, sometime rival, the
French chef Georges Pralus.
While the enthusiasm for hypercuisine is new, the methods
developed by Goussault and Pralus are not. Vacuum-packing has
been used by food companies while pasteurizing foods since at
least the 1960s, but the temperatures initially employed were very
high. Starting in the mid-1970s, Goussault and Pralus, working
with the Cryovac division of the W. R. Grace Company, explored
ways to cook "under vacuum" at lower temperatures. Goussault
discovered that low temperatures were su cient to cook foods so
that they could be safely eaten. At rst, the technique was used on
an industrial scale by hotel
chains, airlines, and railways;
but it has gradually been adopted
by younger chefs like Adrià and
Voltaggio (although it should be
noted that the latter cook also
prepares other dishes by more
Sous vide is only one of the
techniques seized upon by the
practitioners of hypercuisine.
Everywhere, chefs are con-
sciously altering the chemical structures of proteins, starches,
and fats to produce hitherto untasted avors and textures. They
are ash-freezing sauces, emulsifying weird combinations of oils
and juices, and beating vegetable broths into airy froths. For ca-
sual diners like me, the experience of eating such meals can be
unsettling: it's delicious, but it is also food created not so much to
nourish as to entertain.
This is deliberate. The practitioners of hypercuisine repre-
sent a kind of insurgency against the ideals of good food that
have dominated restaurants for the past 25 years. Those ideals,
rst championed by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley,
CA, emphasized the use of fresh, seasonal foods that were sim-
ply but perfectly prepared.
"But chefs and diners got bored," Voltaggio argues. "Now that
people can buy restaurant-quality grills and ovens, anyone can
braise veal cheeks. I want people to ask, 'How did he do that?'"
If you haven't eaten hypercuisine, you will soon. Do you think
ne food should be a kind of higher game? Write and tell me at
Technology and Hypercuisine
it borrows techniques
from industrial food
to fine dining.
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