What do the world’s best chefs have in common?
They keep learning.
Not by doing stages like younger cooks and culinary students, but by learning new techniques and then using, refining, and teaching them to their own staff. That’s how they attain the restaurant trinity: consistency, innovation, and tradition.
Where do they go to learn?
To the best school they can find for the technique they want to learn. Super Chef went looking for the best school for learning the technique of sous vide. It is arguably the Culinary Research & Education Academy or CREA founded by scientist Bruno Goussault who researched and created sous vide in the early 1970s. CREA has a new kitchen facility near Dulles Airport outside of Washington DC. It is attached to Cuisine Solutions, the sister company that produces sous vide products for restaurants, catering, hospitality, and consumers.
To find out more about sous vide, Super Chef met with Gerard Bertholon, managing director and CEO of CREA U.S. CREA has trained 45 Michelin 3-star chefs, including the likes of Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jose Andres, Michel Richard, Anne-Sophie Pic, and Heston Blumenthal. The professional three-day sous vide course at the new facility is a hands-on, intensive introduction to sous vide, including a range of different machines, cooking techniques, and a study of the effects of time and pressure. The aim is to train chefs to use sous vide with expertise and then have them return to CREA for one or two-day courses once they have used sous vide in their own kitchens. According to Chef Bertholon: “The only thing we do is sous vide, we have to be the best, and we do it 24 hours a day. Our goal is to be the number one in the world. That is why the top chefs around the world come to us. We are not the cheapest, but we are the best.” Chef Bertholon and Bruno Goussault also teach onsite classes in restaurants and cooking schools around the world. There are also introductory courses online, and they are creating new classes on molecular gastronomy techniques and modern cooking.
Super Chef interviewed Chef Bertholon recently about the professional course:
Super Chef: What is the mission of CREA?
Bertholon: Even professional chefs are learning about sous vide from blogs or YouTube. We feel that we have to educate the whole market properly because, if someone gets hurt, it is going hurt everyone’s cause. Sous vide is a great tool, but you have to use it properly.
Super Chef: Sous vide is about consistency?
Bertholon: Sous vide is closer to pastry than cuisine. It is all about precision, there is a process, if you do everything right, it will come out so beautifully. When you are in a restaurant, you could have Paul, and then Paul leaves, and here’s Joe, and he doesn’t know the recipe, he is not as passionate as Paul, and your customer says, “It isn’t as good as before.” With sous vide, it is going to be perfect every time.
Why is McDonald’s so popular? It is not good food, but it’s the most consistent. Every McDonald has the same food. Chefs can be so creative, but depending on their mood or if they partied the night before, the food can be very inconsistent. If you go to Thomas Keller‘s, it’s precise, but he is a rarity. Michel Richard is like that. He is a pastry chef. He loves sous vide because he sees that it is about process. Customers don’t care if the chef fights with his spouse. They want to have a great time. How can you deliver a great experience to someone who is going to spend money on this meal? You cannot have one time great, one time bad. It has to be consistent.
Super Chef: How safe is sous vide?
Bertholon: You open the bag, it’s 100% ready to eat, and it is safe. Canned food is safe, it’s shelf stable, but it is not good. How many products are 100% safe and 100% good? There is no other technique that fits the bill besides sous vide.
Super Chef: You have taught 3-star chefs from Thomas Keller to Anne-Sophie Pic. But does this make sense for chefs with smaller or less expensive restaurants?
Bertholon: It is good for everyone. It is even more important for a small chef with two cooks. On a slow day, perhaps a Monday, he can make his mise en place for the weekend when the restaurant is busiest. He can make his 72-hour short rib, his lamb shank, and he can go, go, go. Then on the weekend he finishes the meat up. He puts it on the grill, crisps it up, and makes his sauce. You cannot just open the bag and put it on the plate. Cooking the outside won’t change the juiciness. The cooking is done. You still get consistency.
Super Chef: And besides consistency?
Bertholon: It gives the chefs more time to be creative. They can spend more time on their plate presentation, on the garnish. Imagine today they have a piece of pork or lamb. They have to cook many things at the same time. They have to plate. They are limited about what else they can do. But if the protein is cooked, they can sear it fast, then they work on the presentation and raise their plate presentation and creativity. They can spend more time on sauces and side dishes.
Super Chef: But then every restaurant would have the same dishes?
Bertholon: No. With regular cooking, you put some salmon in a pan; you can have it undercooked or regular. That’s it. During the class, we cut one fillet into pieces and then cook them differently using sous vide. We change the time and temperature. I can give you 20 different textures with a piece of salmon. You can give me two or three if you cook it in a pan. We teach all the techniques.
We are going to teach you how to control the temperature, what textures, what color you can have. We are playing with time and temperature. You might like rib meat falling off the bone, but someone else might likes to pull off the meat. How do you achieve those two things? In the oven? It’s like Russian roulette. With sous vide, you can achieve it. Ovens are not uniform, you get at least 25 degrees variation in different areas of the oven. Here we cook to 1/10th of a degree variation. We cook a short rib for 72 hours and everything can be medium rare. It’s perfect. At the right temperature and for the right time, and every time you have it. That is what nothing else can deliver. In the end, chefs understand.
Super Chef: Is it important what kind of beef, pork, or fish you use?
Bertholon: If I cook the same muscle from French, Australian or US beef, each would require three different cooking points. I can give you a time, but it’s just a starting point. You have to take your product and experiment. You won’t get it right the first time, but when you do get it right, it’s done forever. If someone says, I have steak a dollar cheaper; don’t buy it because you have to start all over again. For us, we stick to the same raw material. I am selling on consistency not price. I want to nail it each time. You change your raw materials and you risk it not being right and loosing a customer.
That’s important because chefs are getting exactly what they want, even if they aren’t in the kitchen. They used to be in the kitchen, now they are on TV, doing charity, in demand everywhere. Not in one restaurant but in five. How can they keep their standards in all restaurants? How can they keep their standards when staff just want to put the name of the restaurant on their resume and then move on?
Super Chef: Is sous vide only for protein?
Bertholon: We teach chefs about compression. You can infuse products, you can brine, and we look at sustainability. We show them how to use artichoke leaves. We put artichoke leaves in a bag, cook them sous vide, and get a broth. The same with carrot peels. You usually throw them away. We wash them, put them in water, and we get carrot juice. No fat, but tons of flavor. We are working on cryoconcentration. We cook vegetables and then we freeze them like ice wine, so if you taste a leek juice or a Jerusalem artichoke juice, it’s an explosion in taste. Usually it is something you throw away. We do this at the end of the class, but we are working on a class just for cryoconentration. To me, the vegetables are even better in sous vide then meat. You get brighter colors and taste, great consistency; it’s amazing what you can do with this.
Super Chef: A lot of chefs are opening up fast casual restaurants. Would sous vide be important in a fast casual place?
Bertholon: Yes. A lot of buildings don’t want restaurants because of the smell. But with sous vide, you can just open a bag and make a sandwich. Or you have a self-contained fryer, so you can open in a smaller place. You can open in the middle of downtown, and the rent can be great because you need less space.