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.”
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 email@example.com.