The meal that changed my thinking about the future of food was an unexpectedly delicious three-course lunch not long ago. It began with a marvelously crispy puff pastry filled with a delicate shrimp curry, continued with a luscious lobster mac and cheese, moved on to a plate of short ribs so tender they seemed to have been slow-cooking for days, and concluded with a light and perfect soufflé.
I wasn’t luxuriating in the dining room of a celebrity chef or indulging my tastes at the hottest gastrobistro—I was sitting in a white-walled lab.
Had I been blindfolded, I never would have guessed that my lobster mac and cheese hadn’t been prepared and cooked on the spot but rather reheated in an immersion bath after exiting its vacuum-sealed bag. Or that my short ribs had been in a hot pan for a matter of minutes. Or that my soufflé had begun life in a canister, its lab-manufactured contents slipped from the tube like refrigerated dough, cut into a hockey-puck-size disk, placed in a ramekin, and baked for 12 minutes.
How could these dishes all be so flavorful and precise? How could something that suggested the starship Enterprise conjure Joël Robuchon?
Spain and its chefs have been hailed in many quarters as the future of cooking, but the “molecular gastronomy” pioneered by that country is still largely a cult phenomenon among the elite, a dazzling indulgence for jaded cooks and foodies alike. If you want to understand where food in the 21st century is headed, you have to understand what’s taking place at a plant in an Alexandria industrial park.
The emergence of Cuisine Solutions—and its growing power and prominence—seems to astonish even its founders.
What it is today is not what it was a decade ago. Back then, producing dinners for the airline industry was its primary mission, and the company maintained a relatively low profile. Then came September 11. The temporary shutdown of air travel necessitated a shift in emphasis, so Cuisine Solutions began pitching chefs and restaurateurs on the value of sous-vide—a process by which meats, fishes, sauces, and purées can be vacuum-packed and then cooked in an immersion bath at a low temperature.
Sous-vide isn’t a new idea but rather an old one with new and potentially startling applications. Bruno Goussault, Cuisine Solutions’ chief scientist, developed the method in 1970 during his stint at the Sepial research lab in France, where he was working on combatting malnutrition in Niger and Senegal. One day, a chef came to him for help: Could the food scientist help him prepare a more tender roast beef?
Goussault set to work. He later published a scientific paper explaining sous-vide and began consulting with companies. One was a bakery chain, Vie de France, which was struggling to arrive at a new method of thaw-and-bake. Stanislas Vilgrain, Vie de France’s CEO, was so impressed with Goussault and his application of scientific methods in culinary problem solving—which portended a new direction for the bakery—that he opened a small sous-vide plant in France in the late ’80s. The Alexandria plant followed in 1990. Eventually, the new direction supplanted the old direction: Vie de France opened a plant in Chile, another in France, and Cuisine Solutions was born.
Sous-vide didn’t gain wider acceptance until Goussault arrived at the Alexandria lab in 2001, joining Gerard Bertholon, a former two-star Michelin chef. A battalion of two dozen talented cooks—some of them having exchanged their white toques for the see-through hairnet demanded of factory work—puts the vision into practice.
In the years since, Goussault has trained many of America’s greatest chefs—and 45 of the 56 Michelin-starred chefs—in using sous-vide. Multitasking talents such as Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller are taking advantage of the process, which combines art (long cooking) and science (mathematical precision), to market their names and become brands.
The lobster mac and cheese I ate is one of Keller’s signature dishes and a bestseller in the Cuisine Solutions’ FiveLeaf gourmet frozen-foods line. Keller’s lobster mac and cheese—like Trotter’s lamb sirloin and Boulud’s braised lamb shank—is mass-produced, packaged, and shipped to grocery megastores, gourmet markets, and some wine stores. Locally, you can buy them at Costco and at Paul’s Discount Wine & Liquor in DC. The boxes look no different from most TV dinners. To the uninitiated, it would be easy to presume they were just some fancy-pants version of Swanson’s.
They are and they aren’t.
The idea of the greatest chefs in the country collaborating with a science lab on a line of boil-in-the-bag dinners is confounding to many food lovers. We live, after all, in an age of unprecedented awareness and activism, when subscribing to the sanctity of local, seasonal, and sustainable has come to be regarded as a moral act and saying no to food processing and engineering a political one. Cuisine Solutions frozen dinners seems to stand, for some, as one of the ills of the brave new world of food. Many foodies are firm in their belief that no reheated dishes can compare to the satisfactions of a good restaurant meal, or to a good homecooked meal.
But here’s what they won’t say: The quality of these gourmet frozen dinners is so high that it would be hard for many people to tell the difference between them and a dinner at a good restaurant.
Should we be troubled by this?
We should and we shouldn’t.
Call it the law of unintended gastronomic consequences.
The Cuisine Solutions lab didn’t set out to change the industry. But its remarkable success in helping chefs replicate intricate and refined dishes on a large scale has opened up many possibilities for the industry, knocking down the boundaries between fast food and fine dining.