Ah, the drama of a professional kitchen. The clang and clatter of oversized pans. Food sizzling, hissing and bubbling: incessantly demanding attention. The caramelly smell of browned onions melting into sharp notes of vinegar, followed by the aroma of mustard from another pan. Chilli powder stinging your eyes, even as you take deep breaths of the wonderful aroma of the tandoori dish, replete with charcoal.
Then, there's sous vide. Yes, it sounds like a glamorous new accessory, or at least a facial technique. Unfortunately, the truth is far more prosaic. But let's be nerds for a couple of paragraphs and head back to 1974, when Georges Pralus first used this technique. The restaurant was — of course — French. After all they were the lords of stylish food till rebellious chefs from all over the world started their paradigm changing games.
It all began with foie gras, appropriately enough. Or at least that's how the story goes. Apparently Pralus discovered that cooking foie gras by this technique kept its luxuriously luscious texture intact by preserving the fat. The trick is to put food into an airtight, vacuum sealed pouch and then pop it in a hot water bath till it's done. It's a clinical approach to food, treating the kitchen like a laboratory. It kills a lot of the romance.
Not surprisingly, Heston Blumenthal, king pin of the world of molecular gastronomy, uses it. So do Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià and Joël Robuchon. However, this isn't just the domain of red carpet cooks. A story in The Washington Post explains how it enabled five top Washington chefs to prepare nine course meals for 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The menu reportedly included “braised beef in balsamic and black pepper sauce, grilled salmon with Cajun cream sauce and vegetarian ratatouille raviolini.” Sous Vide is also getting increasingly popular with home cooks around the world since its healthy (no oil necessary) and — when done right — yields fantastic results.
However messing around with boilers and thermometers sounds like far too much work. Additionally, sous vide done wrong can be dangerous since food must be kept at the right temperature throughout the cooking process, or it can go bad. Fortunately, Chennai now has access to it via 601 at the Park, which has recently introduced a Sous Vide menu.
We work our way though the entire menu to see where it works best. Despite starting with low expectations (how appetising does food boiled in a bag sound?), we're astonished by what a remarkable difference this method makes to meat and fish. The Chilean sea bass is succulent, delicately flavoured with dill and enlivened with a passion fruit emulsion. The lemon grass infused duck served on a bed of sweet potato mash is the other highlight, since the duck slices are tender and yet rimmed by deliciously salty, crackling fat, providing a burst of different flavours.
Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan shows us the process to explain how 601's pork belly gets so tender. Once it's marinated, they put it in a powerful vacuum machine that draws out all the air. Then it's immersed in temperature-controlled water in the sous vide machine, for anything up to 72 hours (which is how long they take for short ribs.) Then, it is braised on the fire — a more traditional process to provide texture and a more acceptable darker, seared colour.
Our dish of pork belly's been in for 18 hours, and as a result its seasoning of ginger and miso has really seeped in, infusing every bit of the meat. Ironically, the sirloin steak's less interesting because it's cooked too perfectly. After all, the charm of a well-cooked medium steak is its layers, ranging from done to slightly charred outside.
We also try vegetables cooked sous vide. Thanks to the technique, which seals in nutrients, they're good for you — but taste no better than traditionally cooked vegetables. So far, this is more carnivore territory. But now that the method's in Chennai, let's see what else the chefs cook up.
The new Sous Vide menu at 601 is available for lunch and dinner till October 2.