Rise of the machines: are water baths de-skilling the hospitality industry?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th October 2013
Consistency, control, accuracy, peace of mind – these are some of the words you often hear associated with water baths and their associated sous vide cooking technique. Once the preserve of high-end dining establishments, water baths are increasingly becoming the stock in trade of eateries the length and breadth of the land as the value of their guaranteed accuracy and consistency becomes more appreciated. But is the proliferation of water baths leading to a corresponding decline in the number of skilled chefs? After all, why pay for a chef de partie to pan fry your piece of meat when you can get a commis to press the button on a water bath, right? Or wrong? The Staff Canteen decided to find out... Daniel Clifford, chef-patron of Midsummer House in Cambridge, is one top chef who is taking the issue of water baths very seriously. In fact the 40-year-old, two-Michelin-starred chef is taking it so seriously that he no longer uses them, not because he doesn't recognise their value; for Daniel there is a wider issue at stake. “I’m a real strong believer that it’s my job to train the chefs of the future,” he said, “and they’re not going to have that chance if they don’t know how to roast a piece of meat in a pan. “Ten years ago I could only afford four or five cooks in the kitchen and having a water bath took the pressure off me cooking the meat. The thing is that there’s not enough health and safety information out there. The scary thing is that you can have twenty-odd-year-old chefs walking around thinking they’re the next Marco Pierre White, slinging things into water baths, who don’t have a clue what temperature to cook it at. If you go cooking a piece of pork at 50 degrees for three days, you’re going to kill someone." Someone who experienced the effect of technology on their cooking first hand is Phil Collard, 24-year-old sous chef at Colourworks in Leicester. Phil originally trained in classical techniques before moving on to fine dining restaurants where he spent several years using a lot of sous vide. When Phil moved back to a kitchen that used traditional techniques, he at first found the transition hard. “The head chef put me straight on grill,” said Phil, “and I panicked and thought, God I’m not sure I can remember how to cook a medium steak anymore. Isn’t that something you do at 50 degrees in a water bath?” Fortunately Phil’s experience and training kicked back in quickly, but what about chefs who perhaps don’t have Phil’s level of training or skill and have been brought up on a strict diet of water baths? This is where colleges come in. Many chefs are worried that use of modern kitchen technology is filtering back into the colleges, leading to newly-qualified chefs who aren’t even trained in the classical basics. But is this really the case? According to a spokesperson at City & Guilds, the organisation responsible for culinary courses across the UK, their 706 series of culinary courses, which have been delivered to most of the colleges throughout the country, do not include sous vide cooking techniques as part of the curriculum. However colleges have free rein to supplement the course with whatever they feel is relevant to the industry, which often means sous vide techniques. Water bath manufacturer, Clifton Food Range, report a healthy demand from colleges for their water baths.However a lecturer at the School of Hospitality and Food at Bournemouth and Poole College said that they don't use water baths at all due to the extra health and safety requirements as well as a desire to focus on traditional cooking techniques. It hardly sounds like water baths are swamping colleges throughout the land, so what is all the fuss about? As Eric Snaith, head chef at Norfolk’s Titchwell Manor, said: “Water baths are just another tool in the armoury of a chef.  I don’t think they’re necessarily taking over the industry. Not everyone has the numbers and quality of chefs that the top restaurants have. If you’re a two-rosette place trying to get to three, it’s about having that control where you can just say, ‘cook that in a water bath for ten minutes, take it out of the bag and sear it off’ and you know it’s always going to be perfectly cooked.” Eric also points out the invaluable role of water baths outside the traditional kitchen environment. “The other big bonus that people often overlook,” he said “is for outside catering or any kind of big numbers. We’ve done a wedding for a hundred people out of a tent with two water baths on the go and been able to do a hundred whole rib eyes perfectly cooked for every guest which, I think, is pretty rare for big functions. Even if the speeches run over by half an hour, the steaks can just sit there and still come out perfectly.” Russell Bateman, head chef at Colette’s Restaurant at The Grove, is someone who takes a pragmatic approach to water baths. He sympathises with Daniel Clifford’s concerns but also agrees with Eric Snaith that water baths are an essential tool in the modern kitchen. The issue for Russell is not just about water baths but technology as a whole. “Where do we draw the line?” he said. “Where do we stop and say we’re de-skilling the industry? I used to cook fish skin side down in a non-stick Teflon pan; do we stop using non-stick pans? Do we strip it back to the Escoffier days where there’s 40 people in the kitchen working 19-hour days to produce food for 12 people? It’s not going to happen.” Is Daniel Clifford then on a unrealistic mission to stop the sands of time? Not so, according to Daniel. It’s not about standing still or moving backwards; it’s about bringing back the personality and the passion to kitchens. “Kitchens have become slightly sterile," said Daniel. "If I wanted to work in a lab I’d be wearing a different kind of white jacket. I like the blood, sweat and tears. When I first started cooking I saw my sous chef cry because he’d overcooked a piece of lamb; that’s how passionate he was; that guy cared; and that, ideally, is what you want.” It’s a noble sentiment but is it also perhaps a lost cause? With the catering industry running on increasingly tight profit margins and with growing shortages of skilled staff, the rise of the machines is perhaps inevitable. Russell Bateman, for one, believes that in the not-too-distant future everyone will be cooking with water baths for reasons of pure cost-efficiency. It is perhaps a sad and sterile vision of the future but maybe the catering industry has to face up, like all industries, to a future of fewer skilled workers and greater automation?  

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Twitter reactions:

pastry chef dorset ?@pastrychefbourn1 Oct - u must learn everything the proper way and never forget the basics of proper cooking. Sienna Restaurant ?@SiennaDorset1 Oct - don't think it de skills but requires the learning of a new skill set as well as choosing best tool for the job. Philly ?@PhillyC1983 - They have there place but it's still important to know how to cook whatever it is without one in my opinion Phil Collard ?@ChefPhilCollard1 Oct - im all for them, however, goin to a restaurant where non were used, was like learning to cook all over again :-/ Alexander Wood ?@esenses1 Oct - understanding the denaturing of protiens and pasteurization are essential. kids think dumping duck into 50C bath is it. Alexander Wood ?@esenses1 Oct - problem is not deskilling, but one of everyone thinking they can do it, then serve 20gm of it with some soil and fluid gels Phil Thomas ?@Stoveman110 Oct - We are looking into SV to bring new skills to the kitchen,its not deskilling,its developing and growing Ben Varley ?@chefben19841 Oct - new learning will always frighten some people, you can't stay ignorant of progress, adapt or die!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th October 2013

Rise of the machines: are water baths de-skilling the hospitality industry?