When it comes to high-tech cooking techniques, what's old is new again for the foodservice industry.

Cook-chill technology does not represent something new in the foodservice industry. Many operators tried it and some have been successful using it. But cook-chill generally faded from popularity because operators were not using it correctly and that compromised the food taste, quality and more, according to Chef John Biswanger of DM&A, a California-based consulting firm. "But now we are asking to do more with less to reduce costs. And we are going to need a lot of tools in our tool belt to accomplish this."

As a result, it would appear that sous vide technology is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Several foodservice equipment manufacturers have new sous vide products getting ready to transition from the drawing board into the distribution channel, where it appears they will find an audience interested in potentially leveraging this type of technology. "Sous vide is very similar to cook chill," said Biswanger during DM&A's annual Good to Best Conference, which drew hundreds of healthcare foodservice operators from throughout the country. "As an industry, we have been cooking and storing food in vacuum packed bags for a long time."

Generally speaking, a sous vide system consists of cooking the food product, often at a low temperature, in a plastic bag, and then vacuum sealing it for refrigerated storage. Operators then bring the food items back to temperature using any number of methods as dictated by the menu before finishing them for service.

One of the benefits of sous vide is the fact that it offers a relatively low shrinkage rate, 3 percent according to Biswanger, which can help generate higher yields. "Think of what could happen if you could save three-quarters of an ounce to an ounce on everything you cook over the course of a year — that would be a lot of savings."

Other benefits of employing sous vide technology include:

  • From a food safety perspective, the process controls the growth of aerobic food pathogens and keeps the food protected from cross contamination once it is cooked.
  • The process enhances food quality by stopping evaporation and keeping food moist, including during the storage period.
  • Because it does not generate a lot of heat or steam, sous vide equipment typically requires no hood.

Despite some of these benefits, a significant obstacle to including sous vide in a foodservice operation is the fact that the technology can be expensive and it requires the foodservice operator to invest additional resources in training personnel, Biswanger says.

Biswanger also reports that getting local health department approval for a sous vide system can be challenging, mostly due to food safety concerns. When implementing a cook-chill system most operators will require a variance from their state health departments, he said. In the case of sous vide a HAACP plan is also needed. "This is cutting edge technology but I think it will be another six to nine months before all the states are on board with this."

Still, as a growing number of foodservice operators face financial challenges they continue to look for ways to maximize their investments in food and labor without compromising quality and food safety. And perhaps sous vide could be the right choice. "Many times in foodservice we do things because that is the way they have always been done. Sometimes, though, we need to challenge the status quo and that's starting to happen in foodservice," Biswanger said.