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Welcome to the Future of Food
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

Bruno Goussault, Bruno Bertin, and Michel Richard ponder the implications of the new technology over glasses of wine. Photograph by Scott Suchman

The half chicken and lobster sauce on a special menu at T.G.I. Friday’s are sent to the lab, but so are the beef cheeks at Central Michel Richard in DC. Richard, one of the world’s most brilliant chefs, operates his own immersion bath at Citronelle, his flagship, but not at the more casual Central, so he packs his prime-beef medallions off to Cuisine Solutions. The meat cooks at 130 degrees for a couple of days before returning to the restaurant, where it’s finished on the grill and served alongside a twirl of tagliatelle. Richard explains his decision to outsource much of the cooking of one of Central’s most popular dishes to the lab as not much of a decision at all: “Better technology, perfect equipment, very precise.”

The calculus for today’s chef has changed, says Mark Bucher, an adviser for Cuisine Solutions who also operates three outlets of BGR the Burger Joint, for which he outsources his turkey burgers, hoping to avoid the trap of dry meat: “As a chef, you’ve got to be able to deliver products that can wow customers when you’re not there.” 

And there are so many variables that chefs can’t control, such as inconsistent ovens and burnout line cooks. A water bath, on the other hand, is always the same—a reassuring thought for a peripatetic chef like Wolfgang Puck, who controls the strings on a vast food empire (the Source in DC is among his many properties) and can’t be everywhere at once.

“Wolfgang Puck could not be where he is today without Cuisine Solutions,” says Bucher, referring to the Austrian superchef’s ubiquitous presence in America’s airports. The lab enabled him to translate his dishes for mass consumption.

Precision and repetition on a large scale is what brought José Andrés, the DC-based restaurateur with a TV show and operations here and in Los Angeles, to Cuisine Solutions. Andrés is now consulting for a number of Spanish tapas bars in Spain and on the West Coast, and he has enlisted the lab’s help in streamlining some of his products.

Chefs without far-flung empires are turning to the lab for help with their high-end catering. “When Daniel Boulud does an event and needs 900 lamb shanks in a couple of days,” says Bucher, he calls Cuisine Solutions. Why? “Because he just doesn’t have the bandwidth to store it all, and he knows that, one, he can save time by going to Bruno and getting the precooking out of the way and, two, he can get those shanks just the way he wants them.” There are 24 water tanks at the plant in Alexandria, and each can be customized; if Boulud wanted, he could cook 24 different versions of his lamb shanks at once.

A Boulud disciple, Bertrand Chemel, now the chef at 2941 in Falls Church, turned to Cuisine Solutions recently for help with a braised-beef-short-rib dish that was featured on both a banquet menu and a Restaurant Week menu. Having been trained in the technology at Daniel, Boulud’s celebrated Manhattan restaurant, Chemel wasn’t just familiar with the immersion-bath process but also comfortable with it. He understood its uses, particularly in subduing tougher cuts of meat. With his standard menu, he liked having total control over every operation in the kitchen, but at high volume it was hard to resist the allure of outsourcing the short ribs to the lab.

This same rationale appeals to the overtaxed kitchens of the area’s Hilton, Marriott, and Gaylord properties, where galas for thousands are the norm. The lab’s technology—with its promise of a new, improved variation of the boil-in-the-bag cooking that has long defined the rubber-chicken circuit—is no longer just a luxury, a tool to experiment with; increasingly, it’s becoming a necessity.

The fast-food giant Chipotle was among the first to realize the lab’s potential value. Ever wonder about the uncanny quality and consistency of the long-cooked morsels of pork, chicken, and steak tucked into all those thousands of burritos and tacos? Representatives of the chain were schooled in the particulars of the sous-vide method by the Alexandria lab at a seminar. It wasn’t much later that Chipotle decided to eliminate the middle man and built its own large-scale, immersion-bath-based lab to assist in the high-grade mass production of its chicken and rice and beans.

Bucher believes the day isn’t far off when we’ll see the first lab-centered restaurant. He cites the example of the chain Panera Bread, which has no kitchen equipment yet produces a salmon club and grilled-salmon salad, both with the help of Cuisine Solutions.

“I could totally see a restaurant with no kitchen, really,” Bucher says, “just a small storage area and everything coming in in bags and being reheated and finished on a small grill. You look at the success of some of the food carts, working in such tight quarters, and it’s not so far-fetched. Plus, the quality is there. You can taste it.”

But even as the most enthusiastic proponents of the technology embrace its many uses, they’re increasingly leery of diners learning of their enthusiasm. Leery of customers seeing them as ceding control of their craft—a craft that, for all its advances, is rooted in tradition and that demands of its practitioners a passionate, hands-on devotion.

Daniel Boulud, I learned during my research, was antsy about this story. Many at the lab are a little on guard, too—welcoming the attention but uneasy with the prospect of being outed for playing such a role. The job of those who work behind the scenes, after all, is to make the chefs look good, not compete for the spotlight.

Michel Richard went so far as to request an advance copy of this article—underscoring his uneasiness with being portrayed as an avatar of the new technology.

I was unpersuaded, but weeks earlier, over the phone, he had made a convincing case to me for the lab’s role in his world. I didn’t hear a chef in thrall to a new toy; instead Richard spoke with a disarming humility and openness, particularly for someone so celebrated. The lab wasn’t an appendage to his kitchens—it was a full-fledged partner in his operations, a creative accomplice.

“It is,” he said, “a part of my mind when I create new dishes now. I will still use the old style of cooking—sautéing, braising, baking, roasting. But why not take advantage of the new tools?”

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles