No Sweat

John Campbell - January/February 2011

No heat here: English chef John Campbell details how he uses sous-vide and energy-saving equipment to keep the kitchen cool and under control at fresh-out-of-the-box Coworth Park, the Dorchester Collection's country estate in Ascot.

I always wanted to be a cook, to work in a kitchen so I could indulge my curiosity about how food works, how a sauce thickens, what affects flavor, and so on. I recall as a 15 year old being enthralled by a lecture I heard at St. Helens College in Merseyside on how margarine is made (the answer is that margarine is a hydrogenated vegetable oil--oil pumped with hydrogen and, back in the day, sometimes nickel). I stayed on afterward and asked more and more questions, and at that point I realized I needed to know everything there was to know about three key facets:

  1. Temperature: What happens to food when it's heated.
  2. Ingredients: What happens to food when you mix more than one ingredient together.
  3. Mechanical action: What happens to food when it's beaten, kneaded, whisked, or otherwise manipulated.

Needless to say, how to apply these three principles constitute the foundations of so-called molecular gastronomy, which, as far as I can tell, took shape right at the moment when humans first applied fire to food.

Gaining my first Michelin star in 1997 as head chef of Lords of the Manor in Gloucestershire was a huge excitement. My next step was to maintain and improve on the Michelin standard, mainly by increasing the consistency of the product, improving productivity, and looking for a competitive edge. This is when I harnessed the technique of sous-vide, which, in the United Kingdom of the early 1990s, was being used mostly for food storage and rarely for cooking.

Sous-vide cookery involves placing an item in a sealable food-grade plastic bag, vacuum sealing it, and then cooking the item for a predetermined time at a specific temperature, most often in a water bath but also in a combi oven. Cooking sous-vide results in no loss of flavor or nutritional value. Cooking meat and fish sous-vide is incomparable to conventional roasting and pan-frying for consistently achieving moist and tender items. Added benefits include being able to hold products without spoiling or cooling during service time and no undercooking, overcooking, or overresting of products. Metaphorically, sous-vide has allowed me to take the heat out of the kitchen at Coworth Park, which opened in late September. Of course, I incorporated some physical considerations into the design and function of the kitchen as well.

Prior to joining Coworth Park as the director of cuisine and food and beverage in October 2009, I was at The Vineyard at Stockcross, where I gained my second Michelin star in 2007. Coworth Park is a new 70 room luxury country house/hotel and spa that stands in 240 acres of Royal Berkshire parkland, has two polo fields, an equestrian center, and an eco-luxury spa with an indoor swimming pool. I oversee three restaurants in addition to catering events from afternoon teas to weddings of up to 300 people. The restaurants include my eponymous fine dining restaurant, John Campbell at Coworth Park, which is located in the Mansion House and reflects my passion for raw ingredients and an intellectual approach to cooking. I offer three menus--à la carte, tasting, and shire (local foodstuffs from nearby shires). The Barn is a more informal restaurant, like a brasserie, situated inside a converted barn with its own outdoor terrace. Lastly, I offer a healthy menu--with some indulgences--at the Spatisserie. Of course, many of the dishes are being cooked sous-vide for quality as well as ease, considering the volume of three venues plus catering.

Sous-vide is often referred to as "slow-cooking," due to its lower cooking temperatures and, hence, much longer cooking times. This can be a misleading and confusing notion. Following a system I call "cook-chill-regen" actually speeds the cooking time of a product for service, appreciatively shortening the time from when an order is placed by a guest to the time the finished plate leaves the kitchen. In a typical service for a 100-cover restaurant, the time between the first main course and last main course is approximately two hours. This equates to a dish leaving the pass every minute and a half. If a menu offers many choices, it's easy to see how this can really stress a kitchen brigade. Our sous-vide method makes the cooks much more efficient and the food much more consistent for our guests.

As chefs, we need to prepare the ordered food and serve it when it's at its best. This often leads to chefs dictating to a guest when they will have their next course. Sous-vide eliminates this by "holding" the food perfectly. The process is simple: Prior to service, the products are cooked for long periods of time, at lower temperatures. For example, a filet of beef cooked this way has minimal shrinkage and is cooked evenly from the very edge to the center. After being cooked, the beef is chilled in ice water and placed in the fridge for service. As an order comes into the kitchen, the beef is placed back into a water bath to reheat. After 15 minutes the beef is ready to serve, ideal for the customer ordering a main course and dessert for a prompt lunch. However, the beef will hold at its optimum for another hour if required, perfect for a guest with a large menu and requiring a break. At the reheating temperature, the beef cannot overcook. As soon as the guest is ready for the beef main course, we finish it and serve it.

We also reduced the heat of the kitchen by using the best equipment available and by designing the work area around the operation and the operators. A ventilated ceiling replaces a traditional hood to maintain a more consistent temperature in the kitchen. Also, cleaning the removable dishwasher-safe sections of the ceiling vent is far easier than mucking around inside a hood.

We only use renewable energy sources, meaning we've installed an all-electric kitchen. We have a customized cooking suite of induction planchas that kick out very little heat, are energy-efficient, and only use power when they need to heat or reheat. They also minimize the need for frying pans, as they're a direct-surface cooking top, so fewer pots and pans go through the pot wash. The suite has four built-in temperature controlled sous-vide baths custom-built by Clifton Food Range. Using sous-vide reduced the necessity of having high heat deck ovens in the kitchen, and so we've replaced many of these with Alto-Shaam cook-and-holds, which suit our slow cooking philosophy perfectly. Hatco Quick Therm Salamander grills use radiant heat and infrared sensors that turn on as soon as food is placed under them and heat up in an instant, then turn off when not in use, all without pressing a single button. Fridges are practical and efficient; the Adande drawer units generate a fraction of the heat of a conventional fridge. Less heat creation also means less power consumption, something we're constantly mindful of.

Even the pass is technically excellent. Gratte Brothers, responsible for all the specialist fabrication and design of our kitchen, provided granite work surfaces on the hot pass. Granite retains its heat far better than stainless steel, meaning less energy is in constant use to heat the surface. Again, using less energy in a more efficient manner means everyone gets to work in a cooler environment. And that's without energy-consuming air conditioning. How cool is that!