David Usborne: Our Man in New York


A culinary revolution recently rolled into New York that was especially good news for patrons of such pricey joints as Per Se or Bouley Bakery. Their highly trained and highly salaried chefs had discovered boil-in-the-bag. Yet, we must reluctantly report, amid threats of fines and imprisonment, this is an enlightenment rudely interrupted.

It is not boil, exactly, but rather slow poach. Very, very slo-ow poach. It is kitchen science as much as cooking and it comes with a fancy name too - sous vide.

French for "under vacuum", sous vide refers to a cooking technique popular in Europe since the Seventies. It involves taking your chosen food - say a cut of pork or even a vegetable - infusing it with herbs, vacuum-packing it in plastic and then submerging it for a long time in water some degrees beneath even a simmer. So, how does sous vide food taste? You might well ask. I am told the results are uniquely succulent and tasty but I have yet to experience it. And this is not because I am cheap in my restaurant habits.

Chefs like Dan Barber of Blue Hill off Washington Square Park are wishing sous vide meant "under the radar". Like many of his peers, Barber had been wowing his diners with sous vide dishes for months when, last autumn, disaster struck. The New York Times blew the whistle, hailing sous vide as the most important thing to happen in the kitchen since the advent of the gas ring and the blender.

This being Manhattan, those of us who had not heard of sous vide until then kept it to ourselves. Equally mystified but less concerned with illusions of social sophistication was the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Sous vide, it decided, was a French subversion and a menace to society. Restaurants found to be practising it were told to desist and some were fined. Technically, any chef who violates this order today could find themselves behind bars. And so it is that ours may be the only city in the world with a sous vide prohibition. The reason is some putative risk of listeria or botulism - no case of sous-vide poisoning has been recorded. Asked to explain, an official at the Health Department promised to get back to us but never did.

Now that we know what sous vide is - and that we can't have it - we are fighting mad. Chef Barber presides over two restaurants, the Blue Hill in Manhattan and the Blue Hill at Stone Barns on a verdant Rockefeller estate in Westchester County north of the city. In Westchester he continues to practise sous vide beyond the reach of the city's bureaucracy and prosecution. On Friday, he risked inviting a journalist to spy inside his Stone Barns kitchen, now a sort of sous vide speakeasy. On a counter, a stainless steel bath is filled with barely steaming water. From a small fridge below, Barber retrieves a vacuumed sachet of perfectly poached quail's breast. Voilà!

Am I dreaming or will sous vide touch my tongue at last? It won't. There is no table in my name and Chef Barber has no orders to spare. So it is back to Manhattan and the misery of braised, flame-grilled and sautéd. And plain old boiled.

* Not content with squeezing every ounce of productivity from its workers, America has now turned its attention to consumers. I noticed it first in the cinema. After allowing us to swipe our credit cards in machines to get our tickets, we are now being asked to print the tickets from our computers at home. That's seems like a great way to prune the payroll, but you still have to hand your print-out to an attendant in return for an actual ticket.

But the airlines have really got this down. Before flying to London from Newark recently, I printed out my boarding pass at home and at the airport I scanned the print-out and then my passport. But I had a bag to check-in. An airline employee weighed the bag. Did she then lift it onto a conveyor belt? No, I was expected to do it. You wonder what's next. I can see that passengers taking on security screening responsiblities might be fun. I'll frisk you first. No, I go first.

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