(Note: I am a private chef as well as a columnist. For the purposes of this article, I will be sharing some of my profession experiences in that capacity, as well as those of other chefs.)
Let’s start out by saying this is not a piece on how to sous vide, what are the optimum times and temperatures for which proteins (Serious Eats’ The Food Lab’s Complete Guide to Sous Vide Steak is a good source for this) nor is it about whether a, or which, sous vide machine produces a better end result. What it is about is exactly what the title states, how the use of sous vide is changing things for the private chef, whose job it is, primarily, to create spectacular meals in their client’s home kitchens.
As a primer, “sous vide” literally translated from the French, means “under vacuum”. The definition (from dictionary.com) is “the technique of cooking ingredients in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch, usually for a long time at a low temperature”. It is listed as a noun and an adjective, but chefs have come to use it as a verb, as in “are you planning to sous vide that salmon”?
For many private chefs, sous vide has changed everything, for several reasons. The first one is timing on-site, at the gig, in the client’s home during that crucial window between arrival and service. Which is why this article is part of my series on What it takes to be a private chef: Because for a successful dinner, timing is everything. Being a great home cook or the ability to develop great recipes does not a great private chef make. Cooking as a private chef is a complicated business; one where savvy shopping skills, knowing your local sources and purveyors, understanding portion control and perfecting the timing of off-site and on-site prep, and, of course, meal-service and plating are all crucial pieces of the puzzle. All of this begins days, even up to a week before the event date, as chefs plan their shopping and prep schedules, and what part of that prep needs to happen before arrival at the client’s kitchen and what part needs to happen on site. Enter the sous vide machine. The following, from the website Chef Steps, explains how this relatively new cooking tool facilitates prep prior to the chef’s arrival on the job:
“One of the things that makes sous vide absurdly convenient is the way it gives us a long window in which to work. A butternut squash will be ready in an hour, for instance, but we can leave it in the water bath for up to three. It’ll take about four and a half hours to cook a decadent prime rib to perfection, but you can leave it in the bath for nine and a half more, and you’ll still have a killer dinner. To help you take advantage of this … convenience, [chefs can experiment with] time ranges for tons of different kinds of foods.”
Widely touted as a solution for the home cook, cooking great food using a sous vide machine as part of your process really does take a level of expertise or, at the very least, some research and even experimentation. Understanding food flavors, textures and what is a perfect beef tenderloin, for example, is important to getting the best result. Which may be why some private chefs were slow to come on board. Chef Rose Johnson, of Private Chefs of the SF Bay, says this,
“In the beginning I resisted, when the sous vide machine first hit the home market– it was a big counter hogging box. I had no intention of learning about it, caring about it or making room for one! Then one day– I saw a Facebook post by another chef colleague, of a wand-like device– Anova Sous Vide and it was on sale. I thought ‘well I guess it is time to bite the bullet and give it a try’. I had a gig coming up the following week featuring brisket as the main course. I was intrigued with the idea of being able to serve a brisket that was still pink, sliced without falling apart and yet was the texture of butter. ‘Hmmmm’, I bought it – put the brisket in, taking a chance it would deliver since I had no back- up plan. After 48 hours in the ‘food spa’– my clients were treated to the best brisket ever, and a new sous-vide junkie was born!”
Chef Josh Garcia, another also of PCoSFB, counts on the control he gets from using sous vide as a way to consistently produce great meals; “I use SV on most of my gigs. I don’t do beef with out it… or pork or lamb or any other land-based protein. Sometimes I will use it for fish but not all the time. I did two dinners for 26 people recently, in a wine cave in Glenn Ellen. There was no kitchen. I had 2 [sous vide] pumps reheating the entire meals. I learned how to work this way in restaurants. SV gives you the ultimate control. If your party is late getting to the table you don’t have to worry about over cooking.”
And that really is what has changed: This ability to have even better timing. I produce a menu called, “It’s Not Your Abuelita’s (Grandmother’s) Endless Taco Party”. With this menu, I allow clients to select from almost two dozen different taco fillings, from Ahi Tuna Niçoise to Steak & Potatoes (made with filet mignon “cooked to perfection”) to Chicken Marsala. Each protein has different requirement in terms of cooking times and temperatures. Only with use of the sous vide machine can I deliver consistently perfect results, otherwise I would need more burners on the stove than most people have in their homes and at least two sous chefs on-site to manage the cook schedule. The sous vide machine allows me to bring the protein to temperature on-site and then just finish it off in a grill pan or even with a cooking torch to get that flavorful, brown crust (when removed from the vacuum bag, your sous vide steak will be thoroughly cooked but look pale, even unappetizing).
Previous in this series: What does it take to be a private chef, Part II: does the plate make the chef?
Next in this series: What it takes to be a private chef: Surprising must-have kitchen tools