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Science and safety can enhance chefs’ offerings

What do the world’s most celebrated chefs have in common with the Average Joe cooking barbecue at home?

It’s simple: Both use low temperatures to cook foods very slowly and gently reheat items to create delicious dishes with bold flavors and appealing textures.

In restaurants, one such method is sous vide, a process in which portions of dishes are vacuum-sealed, slowly cooked and then cooled through a precise method.

Proponents of the technique long have pointed to its advantages, including intensified flavors, superior textures, savings through reduced product shrinkage and extended shelf life for perishable foods. Sous vide also can help operators reduce labor costs and stress in the kitchen because individual portions are simply pulled from inventory as required and reheated.

Sous vide and other cooking styles guided by science and technology have allowed leading chefs to test their creativity in recent years.

Since French scientist Herve This and physics professor Nicholas Kurti coined the phrase “molecular gastronomy” back in the 1980s, many chefs have taken to altering foods through the use of refractometers, pH meters, turbines and liquid nitrogen.

Around the world, chefs such as Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain, Heston Blumenthal and Anthony Flinn in Great Britain, Thomas Keller in New York, Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and, more recently, Anatoly Komm in Moscow have introduced such fare as tobacco-flavored ice cream, white chocolate and caviar, vodka mayonnaise, barnacles with tea foam, yeast soup with cinnamon and lemon ice cream, duck breast with olive oil chocolate bonbon, codfish foam with sea-urchin mousse, carpaccio of cauliflower with chocolate jelly, and smoked bacon and egg ice cream.

But such trends can be intimidating for some U.S. operators who view the leap to newer food production methods as fraught with potential problems.

In the case of sous vide, for example, foods are subjected to less processing than canned foods or frozen foods, and because the environment in a typical restaurant is much less controlled than that in a processing plant, some health departments have denied sous vide’s use. Last spring the New York health department handed out fines, forced operators to throw out vacuum-packed food and prohibited the use of vacuum-sealing machines.

As health officials pointed out:

The anaerobic conditions created by the sous-vide process together with the relatively low temperature creates an environment where botulism and listeria thrive.

Vegetative pathogens are killed only if the core temperature reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sufficient cooling must be achieved consistently and at all times.

Times and temperatures must be strictly monitored and recorded to ensure safe handling is accomplished.

But with the right tools and attention to detail, such common pitfalls often can be avoided.

HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, programs are the best way to address these concerns, and because the industry has been moving in this direction for a long time, there is already much HACCP-ready equipment available.

While there are costs associated with developing and instituting HACCP programs, they also can reduce other operating costs and improve quality. For instance, future fireless kitchens without pots or pans would reduce exhaust requirements of many professional kitchens.

Still, the excitement of busy sauté, grill and garde manger stations aren’t likely to disappear any time soon. Chefs simply need to use the tools at their disposal to create innovative dishes without sacrificing the safety of their operations.

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