For gourmands, the person most associated with the application of technology to food is Ferran Adria 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 profile 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 sufficient to cook foods so that they could be safely eaten. At first, the technique was used on an industrial scale by hotel chains, airlines, and railways; but it has gradually been adopted by younger chefs like Adria and Voltaggio (although it should be noted that the latter cook also prepares other dishes by more traditional means).
Sous vide is only one of the techniques seized upon by the practitioners of hypercuisine. Everywhere, chefs are consciously altering the chemical structures of proteins, starches, and fats to produce hitherto untasted flavors and textures. They are flash-freezing sauces, emulsifying weird combinations of oils and juices, and beating vegetable broths into airy froths. For casual 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 represent a kind of insurgency against the ideals of good food that have dominated restaurants for the past 25 years. Those ideals, first championed by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, emphasized the use of fresh, seasonal foods that were simply 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 fine food should be a kind of higher game? Write and tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org.