OBH 62 – Cuisine Solutions – Vive Sous-Vide! (Love at First Bite)
You know how it is, just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in airline food production, something comes along and totally surprises you.
I already knew that a visit to Cuisine Solutions would yield some interesting facts. With my various discussions with my colleague Gerard Bertholon, well known Master Chef and Chief Strategist Officer at Cuisine Solutions plus my experiences on the periphery of Sous-Vide food preparation, I was ready for this unique food production experience. Nothing however prepared me for the detail, precision, professionalism and taste of what Cuisine Solutions are doing today.
I visited their newer unit just outside Washington DC in leafy Sterling, Virginia . I had a long-standing invitation from Gerard to see the facility and finally the opportunity arrived.
My guides were no less than the Chairman and CEO, Stanislas Vilgrain and his son and Marketing Manager, Jean-Rodolphe Vilgrain.
Since hosting a food demo with Gerard at the OBH Taste of Travel Theatre, now a regular fixture at the Hamburg WTCE show, I have long admired the skills and flavours achieved by this team using Sous Vide methods of preparation so I was very eager to see how this is done on an industrial scale. I was in for a huge treat.
The unit is immaculate. Cuisine Solutions took an existing site in 2012 and, using almost all recycled and re-purposed materials, sustainably transformed and remodelled the facility to their specific and exacting requirements. The science of Cuisine Solutions (CS) methods is more exacting than you can imagine. The process infuses more flavour whilst inflicting as little cellular damage to product allowing meats to retain juiciness, vegetables to retain texture and sauces to intensify in flavour. This highly controlled environment makes it possible for products to be used in all areas of the menu that might otherwise be ignored. Less expensive, secondary cuts of meats, delicate fish etc can all now be considered.
Cooking is controlled to within one-tenth of a degree and the process is controlled throughout with the help of the most advanced technology.
CS does not just make product for the travel industry, in fact restaurants, hotels and supermarkets are the major users of CS products.
On the day I was there, it was “Turkey Day” with up to 6000LB of turkey breasts being trimmed, seasoned, seared, sliced and then Sous Vide cooked every hour destined for the delicatessen and sandwich markets.
Jean-Rodolphe was very adamant to point out that there are no additives, no artificial flavours or preservatives used in any part of the process.
As if to demonstrate the real value placed upon food processed in this way you just have to look at CS’s list of partners and collaborators.
Stanislas is also very enthusiastic about training and developing expertise and particularly of the culinary school they have created – “CREA” (Culinary Research and Education Academy). This Academy has trained and supported over 40 Three-Star Michelin chefs around the world such as Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller Daniel Boulud, Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsey, as well as restaurant operators and corporations globally. CREA continues to be a source of innovation for chefs from all parts of the industry. For the airline market, the company works with a number of airlines developing techniques for improving quality and flavour in this challenging environment. Their cooking method enhances and multiplies the flavour of food providing mouth watering products for our taste buds, even at 30,000 feet above the ground where the climate is pressurized and the air is dry. With Air France they have been experimenting and developing cooking methods that allow for safe lower reheating temperatures for delicate products like fish.
Getting into this unit in the first place requires suiting up as if entering a nuclear power plant via an air lock, such is the importance of hygiene and safety here. Once inside, any resemblance to a traditional catering facility is gone. This is food production on a very different scale and by very different means. Interesting was the method of searing and then seasoning prior to actual cooking. Product is seasoned in metal drums that pummel the flavours deep without destroying texture.
The turkey breasts were then seared to create and facilitate the “Maillard” reaction. (This a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned foods their desirable flavour). Even though the product is still basically raw and has spent less than a minute or two under heat, it goes into a 45 minute deep chilling cycle after which it was sliced or portioned and placed into the special sous-vide bags for cooking. The racks are immersed into the water baths for the controlled poaching. This can last anywhere from a few hours to up to 72 hours depending on the product.
The result is meat so tender, so juicy, so flavourful that it cannot be replicated by any other cooking method. It hydrolyses the collagens in meat thus retaining a moistness not achievable otherwise. And is not restricted to meat and fish.
During the lunch served to me after the tour, I tasted a cake product cooked sous-vide. My first experience of this and the flavours were outstanding. The citrus Madeleine batter is made up with the citrus rind/zest and then the batter itself is poached sous-vide before being then baked in a more traditional way. The process infuses the citrus flavours into the batter.
Stanislas and Jean-Rodolphe rounded off my tour with a sumptuous lunch prepared by resident Executive Chef Bruno Bertin of Quinoa Salad, Ginger & Sliced Beef Salad with Pickled red Onions followed by an amazing Crispy Five Spice Pork belly with a Morel Sauce. Bruno and his talented team also served a showpiece of 72 hour Short Ribs with Port Wine Sauce and a Polenta that absolutely melted in the mouth. The dessert of Chocolate Moelleux with a raspberry coulis, the tempering process also done using Sous-Vide was another flavour punch.
We discussed briefly the economics of this cooking revolution. For example almost all of the machinery and equipment employed within the plant was designed, commissioned and manufactured by and for Cuisine Solutions. Much of it imported from Europe and much of its design kept top secret. That does not come cheap – neither does taking 72 hours to braise some short rib, however no one here pretends that this is a solution for low-cost mass produced food. The production quantities are large, but the accent here is all about quality, texture, flavour and the whole eating experience as well as convenience and versatility.
The end products speak for themselves and thanks the strict vetting of suppliers and the almost zero waste during production, the value is created almost by default. I talk to many top chefs and some reserve judgement on the pro’s and cons of using Sous-Vide. All however do not dispute of end result and quality for those product best suited. And there is no disputing the success of Cuisine Solutions across multiple markets with this concept. After all – they did pretty much invent it in the first place so they have every right to be proud.
Written by Jeremy Clark for OBH62
© Jeremy Clark 2014.