Sous vide comes to the senior center

Bruno Goussault (left) shows Daylesford Crossing chef Frank De Benedetto the art of vacuum-packing food in plastic - in this case, a watermelon - at the senior living center in Paoli.

The kitchen at Daylesford Crossing, a new senior-living center in Paoli, was packed with working chefs and cooks on Friday, but it was free of the clatter of pots and pans. Or cooking aromas, for that matter.

Perking in the background was just the sound of bubbling from what looked like oversized aquariums.

There were no fish in the tanks - only New York strip steaks packed in individual plastic bags, floating lazily among the bubbles. Digital thermometers displayed the temperature in Celsius, broken down to one-tenth of a degree.

Daylesford Crossing, which opened this summer, is using the cooking technique known as sous vide for much of the food it serves its residents. Last week, Bruno Goussault, one of the pioneers in sous vide, was working in the kitchen, a professor in a white lab coat, instructing staff on two main pieces of equipment - the chamber vacuum-packing machine and the immersion circulators.

Sous vide ("under vacuum"), developed in France 40 years ago, involves cooking vacuum-packed food at relatively low temperature in a water bath.

Many chefs swear by this subset of molecular gastronomy. Results are precise and predictable. Meats, fish and vegetables cook evenly and suffer less toughness and shrinkage. Flavors are intensified. Whether you're cooking three steaks or 300, they all will come out the same (most chefs flash-sear the steak before sous vide to set up a crust).

Goussault is chief scientist for Cuisine Solutions, which sets up sous-vide systems in restaurants and food-service operations around the world.

Though Goussault has worked with such luminaries as Thomas Keller and Michel Richard at their restaurants, Cuisine Solutions had never set up a sous-vide system in a senior center in the United States.

"It's actually so logical" for a senior center, said Goussault, who is 74. "The technique tenderizes more."

Daylesford Crossing owner Sage Senior Living chose to buy into sous vide for that and other reasons: It wanted to elevate its cooking as well as address a space issue, said Ken Butler, Sage's vice president of hospitality. The kitchen is in the basement, and the dining room is upstairs.

"We needed to get the a la carte dining closer to the dining room," said chef Frank De Benedetto. "The longer it takes to get to the table, the more the quality suffers." Food will be heated in satellite kitchens.

Sous-vide cooking also allows more variety on the menu, while cutting prep time. Since dishes can be prepared in advance and stored, Daylesford Crossing can offer four choices and get hot food to everyone in the dining room in a half-hour, Butler said. "Before, we had one choice and it took us an hour."

Daylesford Crossing now has about 30 residents and expects to have nearly 90.

Kitchen staffers spent three days at Cuisine Solutions' headquarters near Washington, D.C. Asked how much of what he does is cooking and how much is science, De Benedetto said with a grin: “It’s all cooking and it’s all science,” he said. “It actually depends of what your definition of cooking is. We’re changing the fundamental properties of a component of the product.”

Goussault was a scientist in the early '70s when he began experiments with chefs. The technique has improved dramatically. Goussault's work has led to better safety and protocols. Some equipment is now sold for the home cook, too.

He now splits his time between Paris and Washington, and said he had no plans to retire. "But," he said with a wink, grabbing Butler's shoulder. "I will ask monsieur to keep a place for me here."