Under Pressure

The health department is cracking down on sous-vide cooking. One chef already has his head above water.

By Jessica Voelker November 17, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

You would be happy too if you had a nine-foot-long wood-fired grill to cook with.

IF YOU EAT at restaurants that make top 10 lists in magazines like this one, you’re familiar with sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), a cooking method in which vacuum-sealed fish, meat, and veggies are submerged in a water bath and heated slowly at a low temperature. The problem: Whenever food is packed in a way that closes out oxygen, a nasty bacteria—the kind that leads to botulism—can grow. Seal food sloppily, and you might have a problem.

As food writer Rebekah Denn first noted on her Eat All About It blog this September, the King County health department is jumping into the sous-vide fray, certifying restaurants in the food-prep method. Jason Wilson, chef and co-owner of Crush restaurant in Madison Valley, was the first to go legal. (West Seattle’s Spring Hill has also begun certification.)

A few months back, Wilson sent inspectors an HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) report, basically a play-by-play of the exact procedure that Crush uses whenever cooks prepare sous-vide dishes. The health department returned it with revisions, and Wilson’s second draft is now on the verge of being approved. The chef estimates that certification has cost him about 90 hours of work and $400.

King County Public Health consultant Hilary Karasz says sous vide is far from top priority. Of the some 10,000 restaurants the health department inspects, the 50 or so cooking under vacuum are some of the least worrisome. “They’re typically high-end, well-run restaurants,” says Karasz. They also tend to be small. Crush seats 66 while Spring Hill can accommodate just 77 diners. Woodinville’s Barking Frog —head chef Bobby Moore recently won a lamb cook-off for a loin prepared sous vide—seats 70.

And that, says Wilson, is why the county’s certification procedure and Seattle restaurants aren’t a perfect pair. “HACCP were intended for large-scale operations,” he says, meaning 300-seat restaurants where large quantities of food are vacuum packed, sometimes days in advance. “It’s not really applicable on a small scale.” He believes the health department should simply create sous-vide guidelines, as they do with hand-washing or bleach-solution ratios. But unfortunately for the restaurants that still need to be certified, the department has no plans to take HACCP off the menu.

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