One evening late this summer, I dined at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, a restaurant attached to the Hotel Healdsburg in Sonoma County, CA. My dinner companion was my oldest 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 influences and very Northern Californian in its emphasis on local ingredients.
We ate a tomato consomme with a yellow tomato sorbet; branzino, a form of Mediterranean sea bass, stuffed with truffles and wrapped in bacon; squab with chanterelle mushrooms on a bed of foie gras; cumin-infused lamb; beef prepared two different ways and presented with a variety of vegetables; and, for dessert, 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 flesh, while not unpleasant, was oddly silky. By the time I had finished the lamb, I knew something 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 bewilderment. “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 “scientific” cooking or, more Gallically, “hypermodern” cuisine. It is aggressively technological: it borrows techniques from industrial food preparation and applies them to fine 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 process 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 anarchic. The chef, an austerely thin, red-haired young man, showed off his Cryovac. It looked like nothing much, although such machines 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 benefits of sous vide. High temperatures damage food, he says, causing the cell walls of meat, fish, and vegetables to burst; the damaged food cannot reabsorb 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 hermetic 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 rosemary. Then I Cryovacked it with the cumin and cooked it at 58 degrees Celsius for 36 hours.”