The timer rings and I dive my sieve into the temperature-controlled water bath, frantically fishing out as fast I can the 12 eggs mischievously bobbing around.
I run them quickly under cool water. Tonight the slow-cooked egg course has been accelerated and we are precariously cooking them at 70°C for 10 minutes. The outer parts of the white will separate from the firmer white, which will envelop the dangerously soft yolk, barely retaining its shape.
I crack the shell to release the runniest part of the whites. The remainder of the white tentatively cases the delicate yolk, all of which I cup in my hand to hold their globule shape, before perching them on a bed of diced Ibérico ham and crispy fried potatoes that Portuguese-born chef Nuno Mendes has been crisping on the stove.
There’ll be hums of surprised delight from the 12 diners, who will never have seen an egg quite like this. Back in the kitchen, we’ll breathe a sigh of relief that there were no pre-emptive bursts, before we tend to the slow-cooked beef fillet, which has been cooking at 50°C for the past four hours.
This episode took place in a domestic kitchen in East London, under the vigil eye of Mendes, whose London supper club, the Loft, is at the fine-dining end of the scale in the global movement of underground eateries in home settings. Domestic kitchens are becoming laboratories. Frothy foams, which once mysteriously veiled our dishes, are gasping out of siphons in home settings, and savvy home cooks with thumbed copies of McGee on Food and Cooking are reading up on the molecular structure of food to ascertain optimal temperatures for their beef cuts.
MasterChef and Iron Chef, as well as a plethora of literature and TV shows such as Heston Blumenthal’s Feasts, have played their part in exposing industry secrets and spawning this new breed of experimental home cooks furnishing their kitchens with heavy-duty commercial cooking equipment. Sous-vide (French for under-vacuum) is no new cooking technique, but only in the last few years have diners begun to decipher the kitchen wizardry that was elevating ubiquitous ingredients into new realms in hatted restaurants.
Chances are you have eaten sous-vide in some form or another, whether it was carrots poached gently, sealed in a bag with chicken stock, or that ultra tender cut of beef, evenly pink all the way through, complete with a picture-perfect perfect crust on the outside (a blow-torch finish or quick pan-sear).
The fancy French term distracts from the fact that the technique is as old as the industrial food, developed in the 1960s as an effective means of large-scale production, but later adopted by a French chef in the ’70s when he was searching for the definitive method for cooking his foie gras.
So perhaps you can forgive the food writers who get kicks out of nicknaming it “posh boil in the bag”. They might be prodding chefs off their puzzling pedestals, but they are neglecting one of the major points of the process – highly precise below-boiling-temperature cooking in sealed bags to retain all the goodness of the ingredient. The convenience factor might be the downfall, stripping away the rock-and-roll thrill of the kitchen and replacing it with flameless, scientific precision.
An outspoken chef who operates Transient Diner, an underground restaurant in Sydney, told me, sous-vide is spawning “a generation of young chefs too reliant on technology; they can seal cook a bag of food but can't cook the hell out of a steak. Sad, useless bastards.”
Some five years ago, Amanda Hesser, a food writer for the New York Times, predicted that, like its culinary predecessors of immersion blenders and paco jets, the sous-vide technique was inevitably going to filter down into our own kitchens before long.
Dale Prentice is one chef who swore by the technique, so much so that he began importing high-quality commercial sous-vide equipment into Australia, which he supplies to top restaurants like Vue de Monde and, increasingly, home cooks looking to invest in the best.
In the last 12 months, business has been booming, since a cameo part on MasterChef, hits to his website Sous-Vide Australia, filled with recipes and tips on the technique, have trebled. He also recently supplied Neil Perry with the kit for SBS’s Iron Chef.
“From a chef’s perspective, the greatest benefit of sous-vide is that it offers creative minds a new challenge – it can present traditional ingredients in new lights.” Until now, enthusiastic cooks have had to invest in the commercial waterbath, retailing at around $1,300 for a restaurant model. The breakthrough for home cooks has come in the form of the rice cooker with attachable, temperature controller measuring to the 0.1 of a degree, costing a minimal $307.
The process might eliminate the risks of kitchen screw-ups, but is the food not likely going to lack some soul? When I suggested this to celebrated chef Christine Manfield, that perhaps it’s had its heyday, she responded: “That’s like saying a stove top has had its hey day”. Coming from an innovator in the fine dining field, sous-vide is here to stay. And we can expect some surprising twists in the way we eat, as the experiments continue in and out the restaurant kitchen.
So you want to sous-vide at home? Thomas Keller’s classic Under Pressure, released in 2008, is the definitive guide to sous-vide at home, which he penned with revolutionary food scientist Harold McGee.
He showed that if you had the equipment, the time and the impetus, you too could cook like one of the greatest chefs in the world. Before you get started, be sure to pick up a copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which details the precise temperatures to cook everything from scrambled eggs to detailing the acidity levels of molasses.
Dale Prentice's website offers great tips and recipes.