Monday, October 19, 2009

My evening with Heston Blumenthal

There's a lot of overhyping of chefs these days. I used to be a Gordon Ramsay fan, and now all I want him to do is stop using that orange self-tanner and sit down and be quiet. All the overexposure about his multiple restaurants, his near bankruptcy and his alleged affair with a "professional mistress" have detracted so much from what made him famous in the first place: his food.

Being used to that...I expected something similar when I went to watch Heston Blumenthal recently. He's got multiple TV shows as well, many cookbooks (although I don't know anyone who actually cooks with them) and has generally become one of those hot shot chefs who's names are tossed around internationally.

I'll tell you one thing. From what I've seen, Heston is not a man who loves to talk about himself, or much at all. But when he talks about food, you can see why the man has earned three Michelin stars for his restaurant, The Fat Duck.

Heston was in town to promote a new home sous vide machine. That's right, you read correctly: HOME sous vide machine. As in, you can sous vide at home. For people who don't know, sous vide is when you vacuum seal food into plastic bags and cook them at very low, controlled temperatures in water. A lot of professional kitchens now have these things, which look like big plastic tubs of water with thermometers in them. They're quite expensive though, so American Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades invented this home sous vide machine called Sous Vide Supreme. It's just starting to get off the ground now so they're trying to build momentum and demand in the chef/foodie community. They say it all started with the search for the perfect pork chop...which can evidently be achieved via sous vide.

Who better to enlist as a promoter than one of the world's foremost chefs and proponents of sous vide? I mean, the minute I saw Heston's name I agreed to go. And I'm so glad I did.

It was a pretty small room of people, mostly local chefs and food writers. It was so intimate that Heston spent the first fifteen minutes just walking around and talking to people in the room. He did not, as I expected, spend any time checking his Blackberry (if he even has one) or stick with his entourage (which was only his sous chef). He was totally down to earth.

Listening to Heston Blumenthal talk about food is like taking a university course. He doesn't dumb down what he says and man...does he know his stuff. He doesn't pretend like sous vide is God's answer to food. He admits there are certain things, like langoustines, that actually become worse when you try to sous vide it. He described how the protein strands "snap" and the texture becomes "pappy", which I took to mean that the meat becomes cottony and unpleasant.

The true highlight of the evening was when he described his recreation of a Victorian era dish, mock turtle soup. It's a dish that was created when the British stopped drinking turtle soup. Mock turtle is different parts of a calf (tail, head, etc) boiled together. I suppose it's the gelatin from these parts that create a mock turtle texture. Heston showed us a slideshow of this. It started with him talking about Alice in Wonderland and describing a drawing of one of the characters, a mock turtle, that had the head of a calf. The whole "mock turtle" recipe explained the drawing of course. But I had no idea where he was going with this whole "Alice in Wonderland" thing.

I never should have doubted him.

AS the slideshow played on, you saw a video of the stock they prepared. They boiled the ingredients and vac packed it, froze it, then let it defrost over a piece of muslin. The cloth kept the solids while releasing the liquid. They further concentrated the flavour without boiling (heat decreases the flavour) by freezing it again and using a machine to shred the ice. The water is separated from the rest...somehow. After further concentration they add gelatin sheets to create an even stickier concentration.

Here's the genius bit that ties it all together.

They pour the liquid into molds of little watches (ala the Mad Hatter tea party in Alice in Wonderland, get it?) and they COVER THE STOCK WATCHES WITH GOLD LEAF. They're suspended on little strings. They're served in big teacup bowls. You pour boiling water over the watches and it becomes the mock turtle soup with gold flecks in it. It's all poured over an intricate arrangement of vegetable garnishes.

I was amazed and delighted. And Heston just loves talking about food. He gets really excited explaining it all. He can barely keep up with the video, there's so much detail he wants to tell us about. If only he could explain every dish he made to his customers, he could probably charge double what he charges already.

Of course, we were there to see what these home sous vide machines could do. We ended up trying scrambled eggs (Heston topped it with some beurre blanc and shaved white truffles), brined salmon, steak, eggplant, chicken and poached pears. The best tasting parts for me were the salmon, steak and eggplant. However, the steak and eggplant were both seared off in hot pans after they were removed from the bags.

My one criticism would be that people are not going to love the texture sous vide creates in everything. The chicken in particular had a very soft, almost mushy texture. However well cooked, the texture took some getting used to.

I still have my doubts about whether or not this home sous vide thing will take off. Not because the machine doesn't work or anything. It seems to work the same as an industrial one...but more compact and less expensive. Still, it's going to retail at just under $500 US, so it's not an impulse buy. Plus, cooking for hours at a low temperature when you can't exactly combine foods (cooking chicken and celery in the same bag probably won't work unless you want them cooked for the same length of time) isn't going to be helpful to someone pressed for time. Sous vide is also a relatively new concept in the culinary world and even chefs are still figuring out what they can do with this. I guess time will tell if the home cook is ready and willing to sous vide.

But I am a bigger fan of Heston's after meeting him. I went up to him after the demonstration and he was unfailingly polite and surprisingly humble. I mean, the man doesn't expect applause when he walks into the room. He flinches when people mention his Michelin stars. But he loves food. He is NOT a natural public speaker. Half the time he pretty much forgot about the talking and went to plating, tasting...basically what he does best. I hope he doesn't lose sight of the food. We need him to help the culinary world get a grip and get back to cooking.