Bon Appétit

The Sous Vide Tsunami

In a sprawling factory in the Washington D.C. suburbs, the French-American group Cuisine Solutions is revolutionizing the restaurant industry with its sous vide products. This technique makes life easier for chefs and has won over the U.S. From Michelin-star chefs to the Marriott hotel chain and from the military to Starbucks, everyone wants a piece!
© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Arjun Ranabhat is a one-man band. Working alone, the chef prepares, cooks, and plates no fewer than five elaborate dishes: egg bites for starters, chicken émincé with morel sauce and risotto, pork belly with red curry, beef short ribs served with a cauliflower purée, and a remarkable molten chocolate cake for dessert. Can you guess how long it took him to make this feast? Fifteen minutes! You may think that Arjun Ranabhat has magical powers, but he simply created this meal using products from Cuisine Solutions, the global leader in sous vide meal preparation, whom he represents in the United States.

Developed in the 1960s, this technique consists in vacuum-sealing food in a plastic packet before cooking it in hot water. French economist Bruno Goussault, a food scientist, perfected the method after he discovered that cooking vegetables and meat at a slightly lower temperature made them tastier and more tender as they retained their juices. Lower cooking temperatures also mean longer cooking times, which eliminates nasty bacteria such as salmonella. What’s more, each food product is prepared at a highly precise and constant temperature. This ensures that it is cooked to perfection every time. Forget rubbery chicken or tough steak! Short ribs, for example, are simmered for 72 hours. After being removed from the packet, they are then pan-seared or grilled to achieve a crispy, caramelized exterior. When prepared traditionally, meat is often cooked unevenly. But thanks to this method, it is pink and tender all the way through.

Sous vide frees the cook from “the tyranny of the clock,” says American cookbook author Nathan Myhrvold. The process is so successful that a New York Times article a few years ago suggested that Bruno Goussault was as influential as Auguste Escoffier, the godfather of modern cuisine. (The scientist was actually named one of 100 Global Visionaries by the Einstein Foundation.) Since then, sous vide has garnered a massive following. Back in the 1980s, Jean-Louis Vilgrain, then head of the Grands Moulins de Paris flour mill, started investigating this technique. He believed that it could be used to boost productivity in hotel and restaurant chains struggling to hire staff. Through the work of his son, Stanislas, a first Cuisine Solutions factory opened in France in 1988, followed by a second in 1990 in the United States, just outside Washington D.C.

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Stanislas Vilgrain and Bruno Goussault, who has since become the group’s chief scientist, appeal to clients in the hotel and air travel sectors. Sous vide has a major advantage in that it guarantees consistent quality. The chicken is just as tender at the Marriott in Atlanta as it is at another branch in Phoenix, and just as delicious whether served at a romantic dinner or at a wedding with 1,000 guests. Despite this success, the 9/11 attacks brought the growth of Cuisine Solutions to a halt in the United States. Flights were grounded, and banquets were canceled. Thinking on his feet, Stanislas Vilgrain decided to pitch his idea to the United States Army. He has never managed to sell a single meal to the French military, much to his despair, but the Americans were impressed by his demonstration and placed an order for 25 containers per month! “It saved us from bankruptcy,” says Stanislas Vilgrain, 63, an avid rugby player and founding member of the Washington area-based club, the Roosters. “Today, our U.S. clients range from triple Michelin-star hotels to aircraft carriers.” However, his main market is fast-casual restaurant chains. The turkey in sandwiches sold by Panera Bread and the coconut milk overnight oats by Starbucks are both from the Cuisine Solutions factories. The company also supplies Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and Costco, along with leading airlines and cruise ships. Its rackoflambhasevenbeenfeatured on the menu aboard Air Force One, the American presidential aircraft!

A Technique Still Taboo in France

It is hard to miss the headquarters of the French-American group, located at 22445 Sous Vide Lane in Sterling, Virginia, northwest of Washington D.C. Other than a factory where the Starbucks egg bites and sliced beef for Costco are produced, the site is also home to a training facility. This is where Bruno Goussault and his teams have taught leading Michelin chefs, including Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud, and Mark Miller, a former chef at Chez Panisse in California. In fact, Cuisine Solutions is developing faster in the United States than in France precisely because of these star-studded influencers – particularly Thomas Keller, who has promoted the brand and published a 2008 sous vide recipe book called Under Pressure. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, this technique is still taboo. And even though many of them use the method, the biggest French chefs refuse to admit it.

Cuisine Solutions now has six production sites in Louviers (Normandy), Thailand, and the United States, and the group inaugurated a 210-million-dollar factory in San Antonio, Texas, in 2021. This latest launch is the world’s biggest sous vide processing site, and the workforce is mainly from Afghanistan! “We really struggled to recruit enough staff, and we then heard about the refugees who had arrived from Afghanistan after the U.S. troops pulled out,” says Stanislas Vilgrain. “We hired 500 people, along with interpreters.” Cuisine Solutions is now focusing on new finger-food options such as savory toasts and spreads. All their projects are cooked in plastic pouches which are “guaranteed contaminant-free,” while containers made with plant-based materials are currently being trialed.

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Horrified by the return of war in Europe, the CEO of Cuisine Solutions has personally contributed to helping the people of Ukraine. “We were the only ones who had ready-to-eat food,” he says. In February 2022, thanks to donations from French producers, the Louviers factory prepared 250 tons of meals. Stanislas Vilgrain then drove them by truck to Poland (a 26-hour journey), where they were unloaded into the warehouses of World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian non-profit founded by renowned Washington chef José Andrés. This operation is set to be repeated in the near future.

Last year, the American fund Bain Capital invested 250 million dollars in the business, but the Vilgrain family remains the majority shareholder. According to the group’s founder, sous vide is the future of restaurants – more than 30,000 eateries worldwide already use it. This technique saves both time and money, as the precooked products require very little preparation and therefore fewer employees. They can also be served faster, which speeds up customer turnover. Above all, this cooking method has revolutionized the sector by radically changing how kitchens are organized. “Being a chef is hard work; it requires a lot of preparation and labor,” says Stanislas Vilgrain. “Cuisine Solutions provides bases, vegetables, meats, and sauces which can be heated and assembled, allowing chefs to focus on presentation and adding the finishing touches.”

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.