Back in my Salve days, I fell into a job at the Spiced Pear (now Cara) of the newly renovated Chanler at Cliff Walk. I began as an Expeditor and eventually I would move up as a Servers Assistant. It was 2003, I was 19 years old and a college Sophomore. There I stood night-after-night, nose-to-nose with some of the best chefs in the country – and I had absolutely no idea at the time. It was ultra-fine-dining, a destination restaurant in pursuit of the highest accolades. My time there would change me forever. I’ll tell you something too, I may have been in class all day, but I did much of my learning at night in that historic-home-turned-boutique-hotel. Those hours spent on the line, amongst those people, were what opened my eyes to the idea that our food has a story, but also that service is an art form.
During the hours before guests arrived, known as pre-service, we prepared methodically. Linens were steamed. Crystal was polished. Silver and china were placed just-so until the dining room was editorial-perfect. It was a thing of beauty, everything seemed to sparkle. Afterwards, we would sit as a team to have a comprehensive run-down on the menu for the evening. Executive Chef Richard Hamilton on the food and Sean, the Sommelier, on wine. Chef managed two full tasting menus, and they could be ordered with or without a wine pairing. Oh, and everything. Changed. DAILY. With people coming in from all over the world to dine at this up-and-coming restaurant, no expense was spared on ingredients or equipment. I’ll likely link this completely unexpected and all-encompassing experience to other posts in the future, but for right now, let’s stay with the equipment side of things.
Chef was a graduate of the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School in Paris where, as it happens, sous vide got its footing in the kitchen. Sous vide (“under vacuum” in french), for the curious crowd, is a method of cooking in which the protein of your meal is bagged, introduced to a water bath, and brought to an exact temperature by a water circulator that cooks it to your preference of doneness. Anyhow, the sous vide technique was not rooted in Paris exactly, but Roanne, and thanks to an inventive French Chef. The process had made its way from the laboratory to the restaurant world, and all for the love of foie gras! Go figure! That was the early 70’s, and from there it evolved into a dining program for the French railroad. Now there‘s a choo-choo I would sign up for! History aside, it was no surprise that Chef Hamilton had secured a circulator for his Newport kitchen as popularity was growing here in the U.S. (thank you, Internet). With it, he would prepare lobster that felt creamy on the tongue, salmon that was butter-like, langoustine that would melt in your mouth, and the list went on. Long, gentle cooks with very little loss of moisture. Everything familiar was somehow different, and I was fascinated.
While my classmates were out crushing Nati-Light beers and slices of Via Via pizza, I was licking truffle oil off my fingers in-between bites of foie gras canapé’s and learning how to recommend $400 bottles of wine. Talk about surreal. I had learned so much about cooking (and life), in such a short period of time without ever having touched a knife. The fire for more was lit.
Years later, I go back to those memories often. I pull them up like a culinary highlight-reel, still wildly in love with that time in my life. I had a lot of firsts in college, but maybe not what you’re thinking…
This Spring I finally procured a circulator of my own. I talked about it so often that one showed up at my door as an early birthday gift. Thanks, Mom! With the progression of technology and demand, you can now buy a top-of-the-line device without maxing out your credit card or taking up valuable kitchen counter space. My pick after much research, Joule by ChefSteps. It’s sleek, precise, and will make you feel like a gourmet chef every time you work with it.
As I write this, it’s whirring away with 24-hour short ribs for our Labor Day dinner. No heat from an oven, no odors in the house, just the soft hum of water moving around and the assurance that it will be ready and perfect when we’re ready to eat. Time and temperature are controlled through an app on your smart phone. Joule alerts you when your water is heated, tracks when you began your cook, and lets you know when it will be ready to eat. Cooking for a crowd? Use a big cambro or cooler. Want to cook ahead and eat the next day? Ice it down when it’s done and then store it in the fridge. Gently reheat it, without recooking it, by tossing it back into the water a couple of degrees below the original temperature. Got leftovers? Say hello to your new best friend and goodbye to your microwave.
You’ll find step-by-step video instructions for tons of recipes to get you started within the app and no, you don’t need a FoodSaver or vacuum sealer (though it is nice to have). Without Chef by my side, I leaned heavily on these videos and Google as I was getting started. Go beyond animal proteins and explore desserts made in glass jars, vegetables, eggs, homemade yogurts and even jams. Want more, ahem, assistance? There are Facebook groups where you can bounce questions around and seek guidance from other avid SV nerds, many of whom are professional chefs.
It is an obsession. You might love your Big Green Egg, or your InstaPot, or even your OG Crock-Pot, but for me, right now, I’m all about my Joule. Her name is Viv, and I love her so. Pork ribs? Yes! Hanger steak? Yessir. Wild salmon? Have mercy… You cannot mess them up. I’m most looking forward to Christmas Eve this year. Traditionally, I prepare a big prime rib for our family, always low and slow in the oven, but not this year. I’ll be letting Viv do all of the work without turning my tiny house into an easy-bake oven.
And Chef, if you’re out there reading this, thank you for the only culinary schooling I never enrolled in.