12. March 2006 · Comments Off on What Do MREs Have To Do With French Haute Cuisine? · Categories: Eat, Drink and be Merry, Technology

[Something to ponder when you are huddled inside your Humvee, on a cold, moonless night, in a G_d-knows-where stretch of Fort Irwin (or worse, Iraq), watching a bag in a cup of hot water.]

The answer is the sous vide process, wherein all the food and spices are packed in a vacuum bag. Originally developed in 1974, by Georges Pralus at Troigros in Briennon, France, this process affords rapid cooking and light, easily disposable packaging. Both are qualities the military finds most valuable. [However, I believe MREs are all fully-cooked, and (while sometimes gross) they can be eaten dead-cold]. Of greater interest to the world’s gourmands is that the sous vide process retains far more of the food’s original flavors and textures. So it is increasingly showing up in Las Vegas’ hotel/casinos, and Manhattan’s fanciest eatery’s:

Ponder this hypothetical: 2:30am. A guest exits a Las Vegas poker table. He’s hungry after a very profitable (unfortunately, not for him) losing streak. Refueled, he might net the casino an extra few chips. Does one really expect a chef, in his namesake restaurant cooking to order at such inhumane hours? Don’t bet on it. These fast-paced 24/7 cultures demand the very best food served ’round the clock. So we wondered how those special signature dishes are made available? How can our hungry poker player at 8am, 8pm or any time in between, dine on Alessandro Stratta’s Pork Belly with Marscapone Polenta from Renoir’s kitchen, or our famished New Yorker stroll into the W hotel and taste Paul Sale’s Saddlerock Oysters and Jelly Sampler at Blue Fin?

However, without tight process controls, there is a high possibility of the growth of botulinum spores. For large-scale food processing plants, the FDA requires a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan, designed by a credentialed food scientist. But this isn’t so practical for New York’s elite restaurants, and the city’s health code has no equivalent. So, despite no poisonings reported to date, the city is pre-emptively cracking down:

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has quelled the sous vide revolution, for the moment. In the past few weeks inspectors have told some chefs to throw out shrink-wrapped food, forbidden them to use the equipment used to make it and told them to stop cooking and storing food sous vide until they have a government-approved plan for it.

In some cases, inspectors are handing out fines, which start at $300 per offense. The department’s actions seem to represent the first time a city agency has singled out the technique, and how chefs use it.

Virginia Postrel condemns this, saying “If it’s not regulated, it’s forbidden.” I wouldn’t go that far. There is plenty of evidence as to the hazards of this process to warrant a moratorium on its use, until the city has reasonable regulations in the books. But it’s not as though there hasn’t been plenty of time for NYC’s bureaucrats to get their act together already. And, as there have been no reported poisonings as of yet, this sudden crack-down is totally over-the-top.

Update: I forgot to mention that this process has long been of interest to me, because I have wanted to try it myself. I have a laboratory hot-plate, replete with precision thermostat and magnetic stirrer, which would seem to be perfect for this.

[Yes, troops: When doing time at Fort Irwin, just envision you are a few hundred miles north, sipping a vintage Cabernet Blanc, and waiting for your food at the French Laundry in Yountville.]

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