Sous Vide or not Sous Vide

Two local restaurants display the influence of renowned chef Thomas Keller

"Oh my God. That's him," whispered an awed culinary student as Thomas Keller emerged from the demo kitchen at Johnson & Wales University. In the food world, Keller's name is often preceded by genius or visionary. So when he made his first trip to Charlotte in November, more than a dozen local chefs squeezed into a packed auditorium of already buzzing students and faculty for a glimpse into his world.

Keller, the chef and owner of eight acclaimed restaurants including Napa Valley's The French Laundry and New York's Per Se, came to promote his new book. Under Pressure is a technical tome on the sous vide cooking method, one of the biggest food trends in high-end American dining. In simple terms, sous vide (SUE-veed) refers to cooking vacuum-sealed foods in a gently circulating water bath. Imagine beef short ribs, which are usually braised to well done, served medium rare, juicy, and falling off the bone. Actually, you don't have to imagine it. Two local restaurants are turning out some tremendous sous vide dishes.

Kyle Krieger, executive chef at Noble's Restaurant, has been cooking in this style for five years, with entrées such as lamb shoulder, turkey, and duck confit. Krieger says the method allows him to use herbs and spices in a whole new way. "Sous vide cooking enhances natural flavors, and generally we can use less salt and fat."

At Customshop, chef/owner Trey Wilson is an enthusiastic supporter as well. About 80 percent of his menu is prepared sous vide, from artichokes to pork chops. "It produces excellent textures," he says. "And it's all about precise temperature and consistency, so you take out the element of a busy line cook overcooking something."

But is all this plastic-bagged, water-bathed science taking the art out of cooking? Keller, a man who waxes philosophical about the perfectly glazed carrot, admits it's a concern. "This is a technique that needs to be respected."

For the record, which restaurant did the chef choose for his one meal in Charlotte? Keller ate at Mac's Speedshop, where insiders say he loved the Brunswick stew and the smoked chicken wings. Nope, they're not prepared sous vide.