The Allure of Sous Vide
Om: What is sous vide, for people who don’t know? What is it supposed to achieve, and why is it interesting?
Chris: If you were to ask people who practice sous vide, you’d get a lot of different definitions. The definition that I prefer — and that makes sous vide different from every other technology we have in the kitchen — is that sous vide is a technology that allows you to add the most important ingredient to any recipe in a measured way.
Heat. If you’re cooking a piece of fish or chicken or vegetables, you’re adding heat energy as an ingredient to that recipe. It’s what takes it from raw to cooked. The problem is, with every traditional cooking technique, you have to time things just right. You have to pull the fish off the pan before it overcooks. You have to stop steaming the asparagus. That’s hard to do, even if you’re a skilled chef.
If you’re a professional chef, you master the technique and then you keep everything the same so you can do it over and over. Home cooks are rarely doing the same thing over and over. That’s why home cooks are often fearful of cooking fish or an expensive steak, because there is such a high risk of overcooking. Just a few degrees too much and you’ve ruined the meal.
Sous vide is a different approach to adding heat to a recipe. You might set an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, but you never expect the food to get there. You’re going to pull it out when the food is much cooler than the oven. With sous vide, you have a device that is able to heat and stir water to a very accurate temperature, which is exactly the temperature you want your food to get to.
You are cooking at equilibrium. You can never overcook. As a chef, that was a huge deal, because the ability to add a measured amount of heat made recipes consistent.
Om: Where did sous vide come from?
Chris: In the early ’60s, the Swedish government was trying to improve the quality of hospital food. They wanted to centralize production to gain more efficiencies. You distribute that food back out to the individual hospitals, where it could be reheated and served.
They did some experimentation on an early version of sous vide where they would package the food, usually in vacuum-sealed plastic packaging, because they could maintain a hygienic environment. They would precook the food, add it to the packaging and finish cooking it in a temperature-controlled water bath, which is what sous vide is.
For various reasons, that project eventually ended. I don’t believe it was adopted. The project manager was an American [named Ambrose T. McGuckian]. He worked for Grace, which made Cryovac, the plastic packaging.
In 1970, he took what he had developed with sous vide cooking in Sweden and served it at the Holiday Inn in Greensboro, South Carolina [where he’d gotten a job as the food and beverage director]. The ability to consistently deliver a meal that isn’t going to make a guest sick was a big deal. In the late ’70s, it became a technique that was rediscovered, reinvented even, in France by some of the most famous chefs in the world at the time, the Troisgros brothers.
They developed an approach that looks a lot like sous vide for cooking foie gras. That’s where sous vide became a part of the contemporary high-end kitchen.Om: How did you personally become obsessed with sous vide?
Chris: In the ’90s and in the early 2000s, sous vide became the dominant cooking technique in just about every high-end restaurant around the world, which is where I first started doing it, at the Fat Duck restaurant.
In the last 5 to 10 years, we’ve seen something that started out as a tool for chefs to unlock their creativity but also to afford a lot of consistency — there started to be growing popular interest in this restaurant technique.
It’s a big part of why Nathan [Myhrvold] and I wrote Modernist Cuisine. Originally it was going to be a cookbook about sous vide, because there weren’t any good cookbooks about it.
Fast-forward to 2015 and now there are several sous vide cooking devices on the market at a much lower cost than they used to be. It’s been adopted by early tech enthusiasts, but it hasn’t yet crossed the mainstream. And yet it has the potential to do so.
Om: From your description, it seems that sous vide is like how computing was first the preserve of corporations, the government and then education institutions and now it’s trickled down to every person in every corner of the world through the smartphone. Is food technology on that curve as well?
Chris: I think so, at a slower pace. It always seems like food technology is one of the last areas to innovate. It takes longer for food technology to reach mainstream adoption. Think about the microwave, for example, which is the last (food related) technology to become truly ubiquitous and recognizably modern.
That technology was invented in 1948. It was an outgrowth of the radar program of World War II. During the ’60s, it became an expensive commercial tool; they were $3,000, I believe, in 1960 dollars. Large catering institutions and large hotels were buying them. By 1970, Americans were buying over 1 million a year. It took another 20 or 25 years for microwaves to reach 98 percent of all households, at which point they’ve reached full saturation.
Sous vide looks like the first serious technology that might go as mainstream as the microwave. But a few things are going to have to happen for that to be true, if history is any indication.
The microwave wouldn’t have been successful without the national food brands that provided the application for the microwave. By 1970 food manufacturers could leverage the relatively new interstate highway system to take branded products that were refrigerated versus frozen and deliver them to grocery stores. They were ideal for quick, convenient cooking in a microwave.
The Fat Duck
Om: You are an interesting fellow. You have a degree in some kind of science. You’ve been a chef. Tell me about yourself.
Chris: My actual academic credentials are theoretical math and biochemistry. Around 2000, I burned out on a Ph.D. program in biomolecular structure and design. I had this early-twenties crisis, decided that I have always enjoyed cooking, that I will get a job working as a chef for a little while so that I can make a little money and, hey, I’ll become a better cook. I was right about one of those things.
In 2001, I read an interesting interview with a gentleman from San Francisco, Harold McGee, who wrote an important book back in 1985 called On Food and Cooking, which was an exploration of the science of the kitchen. He talked about this chef in England that nobody had heard of called Heston Blumenthal who was trying to apply science in his kitchen to make food more delicious, to do things that other chefs had never done. Sounded great. I flew myself over to England. I had a meal that was completely unlike anything I had ever had.
The Fat Duck is a 600-year-old pub outside London in a town called Bray. Very unassuming. The ceilings aren’t much taller than me, at six feet. It’s minimalist, simple tables.
I might have been one of two or three customers that night. I sat down at the table, and at the start of my meal the waiter rolls up this guéridon, one of those big carts. On top of it was a flask of liquid nitrogen that is boiling away at 200 degrees below zero, Celsius. He picks up a whipping siphon, like you might see for whipped cream at a coffee shop. Flips it upside down in his hand, squirts a dollop of what looks like shaving mousse out of the end of the spoon. Knocks it into the bowl of liquid nitrogen, turns it over, poaching it for exactly eight seconds. Strains it out of the cauldron of nitrogen, dusts a little green tea matcha powder. And you’re asked to eat this all in one bite.
It was remarkable. The shell shatters crisply, giving way to this luscious, unctuous mousse that’s racing with the acidity of lime juice and the slight astringency of the green tea. But the most amusing part is this puff of smog that you get out of your nose that makes you look like a smoking dragon. It was a bit of dinner theater that was a way of saying, “This is not going to be your usual pub fare.”
But it had another purpose I came to learn about. This summed up my approach to cooking and what I learned working with Heston and why I am so passionate about innovation in the kitchen. If you’ve ever had orange juice in the morning after brushing your teeth, it doesn’t taste good, right? Nothing’s changed about the orange juice. Toothpaste residue is alkaline; it’s a high pH. Orange juice is relatively acidic. They neutralize each other. All of sudden what your brain thinks is going to be orange juice doesn’t taste like orange juice, because it’s not as acidic.
Flavor isn’t this external property. Flavor is created by the brain, where the brain sees orange juice and smells orange juice but doesn’t taste the acidity of orange juice. It thinks something’s wrong, and it affects our perception of flavor.
If you’re trying to be the best restaurant in the world and you’re going to serve people 30 courses that you’re trying to wow them with, you’d like to start out with a level playing field. A lot of people brush their teeth before going out to an expensive, fancy meal with their friends. Or maybe they’ve had a pack of chips. Or a cigarette.
The lime juice is added to neutralize any alkaline residue from brushing your teeth. The green tea is added because green tea has astringent polyphenols that are good at cleansing the soft tissues of the palate. There is a small amount of vodka, about half a percent by weight, which is just enough alcohol to help disperse any grease or fat in your mouth.
So it’s theatrical mouthwash. And it’s delicious. That’s the important thing: It wasn’t just science. It was fun, it was whimsical, it was delicious. Every dish after that was as calculated to be both performance but also expand the way you can engage all the senses during the meal.
There’s opportunity when you take a skilled chef and enable them with a deep understanding of the science in cooking. You can invent things that never existed before. What makes me particularly captivated by this is, so many people are focused on doing things in the kitchen the way it’s always been done, the way your grandmother cooked. I promise you don’t have to go back many grandmothers before it doesn’t make sense. What was Italian cuisine before the tomato? Somebody’s grandmother did not make a ragù sauce in Italy. What were the various cuisines like in India before the New World ingredients of potatoes and chilies?
Every cuisine is a relic of a previous revolution. It used to be the way we innovated in the kitchen is that we conquered new territories, we found new ingredients, we brought them back. We’ve found all of them now. There is no more to find.
If you want to create the future of the kitchen, you’re going to have to invent it. That’s where the opportunity of bringing science, of bringing technology, opens up interesting possibilities to invent the kitchen of the 21st century.
Om: So you went to Fat Duck and had that meal. Then what happened?
Chris: I ended up saying, “Well, I will work for free for as long as you’re willing to have me.” The fact that the restaurant had no customers and was nearly bankrupt, that was a pretty good deal. I ended up moving over to England [to work there]. About six months into it, Heston came to me and said, “I’ve always wanted to have a kitchen that just works on innovation and new ideas for the Fat Duck that’s separate from service, that’s separate from production, that can be set up to experiment and fail and experiment and fail to figure out something innovative.” He asked me to come back and build that kitchen and open it, and I did that for the next five years, from 2003 until 2008.
Om: And this restaurant was bankrupt?
Chris: In January of 2004, along with Heston, Jocky — James Petrie, our pastry chef — we were in Madrid at this famous chef’s conference called Madrid Fusión. The little-known story was, that we were down there on a Wednesday, and we were going to be bankrupt on Friday. We couldn’t make payroll.
Nobody knew who we were, so they’d slotted us on the last day at 6 PM, when everybody has gone off to their dinner reservations. All the other chefs had seen Jocky and myself prepping for the demo all week, and we were doing things with liquid nitrogen, with centrifuges and stuff. There started to be buzz that it was worth waiting to see whatever it was we were going to do. On Thursday we ended up having a completely packed house in our 6 PM slot, and Heston did the demo.
We showed a bunch of techniques we were working on. We ended up getting a standing ovation at the end in front of [Ferran] Adrià, who at the time was the most famous chef in the world. He jumped up on the stage, grabbed the microphone and declared Heston was the most important chef cooking today.
This was all wonderful, except we were going to be out of business the next day. Then we got a call from Heston’s assistant saying The Daily Telegraph was working on a story about how it feels to be the third restaurant in England ever to get three Michelin stars. We said, “The guide’s not out, so somebody’s pulling your leg.”
His assistant said, “I thought so, so I called the paper back, and they confirmed that a reporter had been assigned to work on this story.” We were all looking at each other, going, “Well, this can’t be true.”
The next phone call was Derek Bulmer, the head of the Michelin Guide, who said, “We normally like to come in and tell you in person, but we understand you’re in Spain and the news has leaked out. So congratulations on getting your third star. If I can give you a piece of advice, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
We were completely gobsmacked by this, and it was a bit of a pat on the back and a kick in the nuts at the same time, because we were about to go out of business. The night we officially knew we had our third star, we had zero customers.
The next day, fully booked. We were getting 3,000 calls a day. Three months later, we were voted best restaurant in the world.
The Art of Cooking
Om: That’s a crazy story. I’ve eaten at a lot of great restaurants, like Massimo Bottura’s place in Modena, where I can still close my eyes and taste it. That’s how powerful it is. But there are so many restaurants I’ve been to where I can’t remember a lot of dishes.
There is a lot of sameness to them. They may look different and they may use colorful words, but nothing sticks in your mind about a dish.
Chris: That’s an interesting observation, that even at the high end, most restaurants are paint by numbers. Got to have the cheese card, tick. Got to do this, tick. It’s rare to find a chef who’s doing something that’s compelling and evokes emotion and is also delicious.
It’s relatively easy to evoke emotion by making something that’s revolting and shocking but not fundamentally delicious. I can think of four or five people that hit that level for me, where they do things where the concept of what they were trying to achieve was interesting and it was delicious and I would look forward to eating it again a second time. That’s a high bar, and it’s a bit like the art world. Cooking works in movements, too, just like revolutions happen in art.
Every so often there tends to be a a small number of chefs that latch on to some interesting idea, take that idea and expand it, extend and explore it. Then it starts to get copied by lesser chefs and become a parody of itself. You tend to have long periods of time, years even, where everyone has copied the previous revolution. Those ideas are propagating and they are being duplicated at a lower and lower quality. For a new movement to happen, you might have to wait a generation.
The last big movement in cooking was in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Some people call it “molecular gastronomy,” a word I will point out that all the chefs involved in it hate. We called our book Modernist Cuisine for that reason, where you realize that people were legitimate in doing something that they had never done before. At the best places, it could be amazing, thought-provoking and delicious at the same time.
What I see going on right now is great cooking, but I don’t see anybody doing something where you go, “How did they even have the idea to do that?” I’m waiting around for that next big revolution. It’s an interesting question: Will it happen again in my lifetime?
Om: Does it happen every 10 years, every 20 years?
Chris: It seems about every 30. If you take the modernist movement, it spread over a number of years, but its peak was ’99 to 2005. The previous revolution that influenced menus all over the world — and that you can look at things even home cooks do today and say it started there — would have been the nouvelle cuisine movement in France.
It changed the way we approached the kitchen. It changed the way chefs even think about food. You have the New Nordic movement, you have locovores. If you have a lot of ideas like that, maybe one of those ideas takes off and becomes the next thing. Most of them seem to be small waves that last a few years but don’t radically alter the way people cook all over the world.
Om: There are a lot of parallels in technology. There is the PC wave and the mobile wave and the social wave, and then you have variations of those.
The Obesity Epidemic
Om: Shifting focus a bit, from my standpoint, the food supply is under duress. There are more people on the planet, the climate is unpredictable, the water supply is stressed. We have a challenge ahead. How do you see these things playing out?
Chris: I don’t have a crystal ball any better than anyone else, but there are things that could affect it that some people are thinking about and I certainly hope become dominant ideas.
Let’s take Americans’ access to food. We have an obesity problem. An obesity epidemic is ultimately a caloric surplus: We have more calories than we need. We live in a land of abundance, and our bodies were designed to live in periods of abundance and scarcity. When you have abundance 24/7, your body is not good at moderating itself. It has a few extra hundred calories every day, and you get fat. Part of that comes from our relationship with food and our relationship with eating.
When you go out to a restaurant — over 50 percent of all food dollars are spent eating out now versus cooking at home, a big difference from even a few decades ago — you have the convenience of infinite selection. It becomes easy in an affluent society to eat out and say, “I’ll have abundance today, thank you. And tomorrow I’ll have some more abundance,” and all of a sudden you have the obesity epidemic. In an attempt to have whatever type of abundance you want, businesses become enormously wasteful. They throw out more than half of their food. They have to, because it’s the cost of losing a customer versus having that option for them. The economics works out.
As a chef, I will tell you, the combination of the time and effort it takes to cook for yourself will make a massive impact on how much food you cook and consume every day. My own experience is cooking at home more instead of eating out as much. I eat healthier. I eat less — that simple thing. Yet the problem is, you’re asking people to do more work, not less.
Om: I will be the skeptic. Now we work differently. We don’t have a nine-to-five work life, and so cooking is not that easy at home.
Chris: That’s where technology offers an opportunity, because I agree with you. There’s so many barriers to why you don’t cook.
The real opportunity in the near term of the food space is to increase the convenience of cooking a lower-impact meal from scratch. I’m not going to tell everybody in America, “Stop eating meat tomorrow.” Because it isn’t going to work. But if I can get them wasting less meat, if I can get them cooking things by making it more convenient and removing the fear of failure. Technology fills in your knowledge gaps.
Just about anything you can do to reduce those barriers that get somebody to say, “OK, I am going to cook” versus “I’m just going to order pizza.” Isn’t that the benefit?
The Once and Future Restaurant
Om: What do you make of services like Munchery and Sprig, the industrial kitchens delivering food to your house? Are they the evolution of the restaurant?
Chris: Some of them are likely going to be an evolution of the restaurant, but maybe not in the way you mean. What you’re seeing is new options. It used to be you had two choices: You could cook from scratch at home, or you could go to somebody who specialized in creating a place that would serve food. We call them restaurants. That was it.
In fact for most of history you didn’t even have that option, because restaurants are a relatively new phenomenon. It used to be you’d cook at home and that was it. Or if you were super wealthy, you would employ a chef to cook for you.
When the aristocracy starting breaking down in the 18th and 19th centuries, a lot of those formerly employed professional chefs opened restaurants, and now people had the option of “cook for myself or eat out at this restaurant.”
With the proliferation of the car, for example, now you have the option of drive-through or delivery. The new technology didn’t displace the restaurant, but it diversified the number of options.
Om: Isn’t it time to rethink the whole idea of the restaurant altogether? What has it become, with all of these on-demand services and everything?
Chris: That’s an interesting point. You’ll start to see the definition of a restaurant become fragmented. You’ll see very high-end restaurants. A few will survive that are able to attract enough wealthy clientele. Then you will also see lots of restaurants that are so-called fast-casual restaurants. They’re conservative, safe. They know how to make their economics work. They know what they can pay.
What you’ll miss are a lot more of the independent restaurants that are doing something interesting or taking a risk, because it will become too risky when you’re spending that much. Where do all those risk-taking chefs go?
You’re seeing what happens. You’re seeing things like food trucks. You’re seeing pop-up restaurants. You’re seeing all of these skilled professionals basically say, “How do I take my skills and find an audience that’s willing to compensate me for my time?” You’ll see more and more ways of somebody preparing a meal for you that, formerly, would have been a restaurant.
Here’s the way I think about what a restaurant really is: A restaurant is a crowdsourced phenomena. Always has been. It’s a matchmaking mechanism.
Pre-internet, a physical space in a reasonably dense environment or in a particular road place was a good place to find a crowd that was willing to back you. But there are so many more ways now to find an audience that is willing to exchange their time or their money for whatever it is you’re doing.
That’s how the restaurant will be revolutionized. If all the restaurant does is match a chef up with an audience that’s willing to pay to have their meal prepared, the physical locale is a liability, not an advantage.
Om: What does the kitchen of the future look like?
Chris: The short answer is, I don’t know, because if I knew we’d already be doing it. The idea is, you’re going to have to go try a bunch of things, fail at most to them to find those things that are actually meaningful.
Augmented intelligence and augmented reality are going to have roles to play in the kitchen. Smartphones are not the best input device for the kitchen. Things like voice and gesture control are going to be much better in terms of ways we interact with tools that can anticipate our needs and help us be more successful. That’s the technology side of it.
The more interesting part to me is the way you start to connect to people to accelerate the pace of innovation, the spread of recipe ideas or even new food product ideas.
[ChefSteps is] helping pair people together so they can exchange ideas and have a market to try them out, which is our community. To me, part of what the kitchen of the future would look like is more creativity, more people trying things that they never tried before, inventing foods that are new to them.
Technology for the Kitchen
Om: You mentioned gestures and voice. What do you think about Amazon Echo?
Chris: Amazon Echo is an interesting technology. It’s certainly one we are paying attention to. One of the most common uses for Amazon Echo is the kitchen timer.
You can totally see why, because in the kitchen, your hands are covered in goo pretty often. Saying, “Hey, set the timer for five minutes” — that’s a pretty nice thing to be able to do. But there is no glance ability. It’s nice to be able to quickly glance over and get those four digits of information to see how things are going. That’s a limitation of this particular implementation.
It’s actually a paradigm shift with how we interact with our kitchen tools. Right now, every tool you have in your kitchen, say the case of an oven or a stove top or even a microwave, requires you to translate your preferences and the outcome you desire.
You should set the oven at 400. Or is it 450? I don’t remember. Should you set the stove to medium-high or high, and what’s the difference between medium-high and high, anyway? How do I set a power level on a microwave? These are user-experience disasters.
The oven gets a pass, because it is the best we can do compared to the coal ovens we were using beforehand. But it’s been 100 years and we are still having to translate. “I would like my steak cooked this way,” “I would like my piece of fish like this.” I have to translate that into engineering parameters. That’s totally lame.
It’s much more interesting to be able to set it and have a tool where you can say, Here is an image. In fact it’s a moving image. It’s a movie of a fish being destroyed under a fork to show you, “Is this what you want?” Swipe that over: “Is this what you want?” You’re now communicating in an inherently human way.
That’s nice, because you can convey information in movies that give you a new way to interact with the tools. That’s state of the art right now, and that’s certainly where I’m racing. But it’s not the end of the line, because at some point you want to be able to do things like say, “Alexa, I want to cook a fish just like last time but a little less done.”
You’ve expressed it in a fundamentally human way using your voice, and then you are going to do a whole bunch of computation to translate what that means, because “just like last time but a little less done” is ambiguous enough but it’s also defined enough that it’s solvable.
I know that last time I cooked a good fish at 45 degrees Celsius. So I’m going to try 44 this time.
[The tool] didn’t give the person, “Do you mean this? Do you mean this? Do you mean this?” [The tool is] not giving them more optionality, which is just adding confusion. You’re allowing computation, all augmented intelligence to try to guess at the intent and get a result that’s good enough.
I think that’s an interesting way to start interacting in the kitchen, to be able to just say, “This is what I want.” You won’t be able to do it for everything, but there are enough cases that are solvable, that are highly valuable enough, that it will start to change behaviors.
Photo credits: Archival photos courtesy of Chris Young. Chris Young’s portraits and photos around Seattle by Sarah Lovrien, a Seattle-based portrait and fashion photographer.