How I learned to stop worrying and love the sous vide machine



The Machine sits at an odd angle, dorm room microwave sized, almost obscured from view in our small converted closet of a pantry. It is openly laughing at me through its greasy front plate, a pile of tea towels wreathing its flat metal head like a badly wrapped turban. It’s on the second shelf, back right, nestled against a collection of “it seemed a good idea at the time” purchases and well-meaning gifts for a solid home cook — a brown and yellow terracotta “sombrero” style conical chicken roaster, a poultry trussing kit and cradle, a bag full of gaudily colored and impractically large “traditional” dried pasta from an un-ironically named gourmet food shop in northern New Jersey, a probably-now-rancid container of olive oil from a country that doesn’t really make olive oil.

Over the years, The Machine has been shellacked with a thin crust of mop dust, pulverized breakfast cereal flakes and dog kibble debris, all centrifuged and eventually aerosolized by the carefree footsteps of a hyperkinetic wrecking ball of an eight-year old. The difference between The Machine and the rest of the occupants of the closet is that it, The Machine, a first rate sous vide (“under vacuum”) unit and vacuum bag sealer, is itself, actually a good idea. I am terrified of and embarrassed by The Machine.

Every couple of months I’ll grab a roasting pan or similar tool from off of one of the build-in kitchenwire shelves and I’ll make eye contact with it — I swear, after a few glasses of wine, I’ve seen it raise a chrome eyebrow at me. The message is clear: “don’t really have the chops you think you do, huh, kid?” — I usually pull one of the towels down to cover its mocking face. I threw an ice cube at it once.

Now, I understand that I should be able to just watch a couple of Youtube videos and learn how to use it like Brooklyn’s answer to Eric Ripert, but for some reason the haughty presupposing instructions and sleek Germanic modernist casings provoked a primal fear of kitchen inadequacy and culinary performance anxiety. Luckily, there’s Shortychef — a one man kitchen-mounted Viagra dispenser, come to lay a smackdown on any paralytic panimpotence.

I’ve known Shortychef — aka Josh Eden — since the 1990s. He’s a study in the unity of opposites. On the one hand he’s the chilliest dude you’ve ever met. He’s really funny and unfailingly polite, he likes to watch the Mets, plays fantasy sports, doesn’t drink but likes the chronic, listens to jam bandy classic rock, goes to the track, enjoys a round of golf, is a big time dog lover, generally quiet in a crowd and always seems to be smiling.

On the other hand, he’s a shaved-head assassin of a kitchen boss. He made his bones when we still thought Patrick Ewing was going to win this city an NBA championship. He’s been one of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s main guys on and off for years, but he’s also worked with and for some of the biggest names in New York and global gastronomy (although he’s too modest to tell you that unless you asked him straight up) and has run a number of his own spots, including the successful Shorty’s .32 in SoHo which served the best braised short ribs that I have ever eaten.

When Vongerichten opens a new resto in some exotic locale where the food has to be Fed-Exed in every morning, more often than not, Shorty is on a plane to get it up and running. He’s a cook, chef and go-to problem solver. He’s a calm, pleasant professional and proven kitchen hit man in a world once full of unstable pirates and knife throwing, abusive misanthropes. He’s the Victor the Cleaner of the Vongerichten food empire. He’s also one of the hardest working human beings I’ve ever met — when he had Shorty’s .32 he didn’t take a night off for months in a row. The guy is no joke.

But, because he’s also tender-hearted and generous, there he was ammenably in my kitchen on a rare day off, smiling tolerantly as my undertrained and oversized spastic lovemush of a rescue dog, Frankie slobbered all over him, drinking ginger beer out of a take-out one pint soup container and eyeing my pre-prepared third-rate mise en place skeptically. “Need anything, bro?”, I asked, my voice cracking with gleeful anticipation and some back notes of nervousness.

“Blades? Salt?” he gently asked. A rush of relief and self-importance. On that score, I had him covered. Like most wannabes, I emphasize the tools of the trade to over-compensate for a lack of skill in actually using them (real soldiers don’t fetishize their gear). So my knives are frigging beautiful. I have a bunch of gorgeous cutlery, including a custom CutBrooklyn 10” chef’s blade that’s so slick it looks like it was made in Wakanda. Before Shorty arrived, I honed the knives to razor sharpness and laid them out, ready to rock and roll.

Shorty looked all seven of my knoves over quickly and for a fleeting second, a pained expression flitted across his face. His eyes lit up as they settled on a stained, ground down and battered old boning knife, half the size of my trophies. My mom had acquired the knife in the 1960s. He grabbed it. I presented him with several containers of fancy “for the foodie in your life!” varieties of salt (think “organic Portuguese tidal sea salt infused with cork tree pollen”). The slightest hint of a gentle and tolerant crinkly-eyed smile before he reached past the individually-curated-flakes-of-artisanal-hand-harvested-Brittany-truffle-salt and grabbed the jar of Diamond Brand Kosher. “Yeah, we’re good,” said Shorty. And we were off.

Our small group gathered around the kitchen island as Shorty got to work. We were doing three separate proteins with sides, all done in The Machine. An improbably expensive piece of wild salmon from Fish Tales on Court Street, from Staubitz in Cobble Hill two beautiful bone-in ribeyes and one pork shoulder, also bone in. After an initial round of asking annoying and intemperate questions designed to telegraph my "massive” knowledge of cookery and generally getting in the way, a novel and uncharacteristically bright idea occurred to me: Just shut up, be helpful and get out of the way.

We chopped, we cleaned and cleared; we listened as Shorty broke down the process and the proteins. The shoulder got deboned in about a minute, the glorious chunk of pig was split in half, one side chopped and seasoned for chili tacos, the other scored, trussed and rolled as a roast, with us all taking a turn at screwing up the really simple cross stitching which Shorty patiently undid and fixed. The steaks went into the seal bags with garlic, seasoning and olive oil; the fish was cut into perfect five-ounce chunks and bagged with Provençal herbs and butter. We cranked up the soundtrack, leaning heavily on what I hoped were Shorty’s favorites: the Allman Brothers, the Black Crows and Government Mule. Bottles of cold cava, North Fork Cab Franc and  mid-range rosé Minervois were popped and sucked down, everything got turned up to 11.

Well, everything but Shorty.

As we got louder, jollier and more inexact, Shorty went in exactly the opposite direction — his station somehow always immaculate despite the chaos, his movements precise, controlled, directed. He showed us how to use the prep sealer to lock in a fat (olive oil or butter), a protein and flavoring agents; told us how we could economize by slicing one of the vacuum bags in half with a shears and sealing the ragged side, demonstrated how to set the temperature on the bath, and explained generally why this was worth all the fuss.

The most salient point for me is that the method is largely idiot-proof. You cook your food to an exact predetermined temperature that The Machine maintains for you for a precise amount of time. You set that time when you start. You can’t overcook anything as it holds the temperature for you no matter how easily distracted you are in the kitchen and rather than shrinking and drying out, the longer you cook in sous vide, the more tender your food gets — things are just getting good an hour into the process when your cooking at about 100 degrees. We did the pork and the steak at the same time, fish and veggies next. Once the proteins come out of the bath, you slice the bag open and either just serve or use a secondary cooking technique to add texture.

The steaks got finished on the stove top, sparkling luxuriously in herb butter; the pork roast went in the oven on high heat for a bit; the taco meat took a quick turn in a sauté pan with some more chili and garlic powder before meeting diced raw onion, cotija cheese and lime in pre-heated corn tortillas; the potatoes crisped up with olive oil and oregano under a broiler. The fish we served as is.

We ate standing in the kitchen, dog crashed out and snoring under the table, early spring lavender twilight visible through the kitchen windows, chatting excitedly, sharing plates and passing them around as Shortychef finished each dish. All of us ate more than we would normally eat in an entire day. For me, the steaks were the star of the show — the combo of the perfect internal rare-medium-rare temperature, amazingly juicy interior and a buttercrispalicious salt and pepper shell was killer. The pork roast was remarkably tender and flavorful, the tacos the same, the fish delicate and subtle. More wine, more laughing, stories about the time Shorty cut off his thumb mid-dinner rush and didn’t want to go to the hospital because the kitchen was “really slammed and in the weeds,” about the time we ran out on the check at a fancy restaurant by accident (“wait, I thought YOU paid?!?!”), just joyful tales of life in front and behind the scenes at the dinner table. It was an absolute feast, and I can’t remember ever enjoying a standing meal as much in my life.

Throughout it all, Shorty’s kind demeanor and patient smile never wavered. I guess if you’ve cooked on the line at full rush Saturday night dinner service with Jean-Georges Vongerichten breathing down your neck, teaching a few eager but clumsy ham-and-eggers how to use an ultimately fairly simple machine isn’t that much of a challenge. But asking a chef to cook for fun on his day off is a big lift. Shorty made it look easy and did it with grace and humor. Like Chef Auguste Gusteau says “anyone can cook,” but not everyone can cook well. Shortychef delivered a masterclass.

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