Future Tense

The Canny Valley of Cooking

A meal delivery service is hoping culinary technology will help it stand out.

RealEats meal
From plastic-wrapped to plated: Real Eats.

Photo illustration by Slate. Real Eats.

The meal spread out cleanly on my plate, not quite Instagram-ready, but still pleasant enough: hunks of cauliflower perfumed with a floral array of cardamom and coriander, a thick stew of lentils, delicately diced lamb shoulder tossed with translucent slivers of fennel. Though I was eating at home, I’d put almost no effort into the dish. Ten minutes before I sat down, its components were still contained in three vacuum-sealed bags. I did little more than toss them into a boiling pot of water for a few minutes, slice them open, and squeeze them onto the plate.

That dish was a product of Real Eats, the latest entrant into the burgeoning meal delivery marketplace. Where the likes of Blue Apron send you the ingredients of a dish and tell you how to prepare it, Real Eats offers something different: fully cooked meals designed by chefs that only need to be reheated. It promises to meld extreme convenience with genuine quality. Its seasonal ingredients are sourced from small New York farms and, naturally, they’re genetically modified organism–free. Of course, many of Real Eats’ competitors make similar claims, but none, as far as I know, advertise their dependence on sous-vide technology. And while that claim makes Real Eats stand out from the pack, it also turns out to be a little strange.

As commonly understood, sous-vide cooking is a two-step process: First, you place the food you’re preparing in a plastic bag, sealing it and removing as much of the air as possible. Professional kitchens typically do this with powerful chamber vacuum sealers, but it’s possible to pull off a similar effect at home without the help of gadgets. Second, you place that packet in a bath of water heated to a constant, typically quite low, temperature, often using a device called an immersion circulator.

In the introduction to his sous vide–focused book Under Pressure, Thomas Keller writes, “The fundamental advantage of sous vide is precision.” With a calibrated water bath, you can, for example, bring a vacuum-sealed rib eye steak to an exact medium rare temperature throughout, lending the meat an even pinkness and consistent texture. After extracting it from the reservoir and taking it out of the bag, you can quickly sear off the outside immediately before serving. As J. Kenji López-Alt, an evangelist of the method, memorably puts it, “[W]ith sous-vide cooking, even a monkey with a toupee can produce perfectly cooked proteins without fail.”

While sealing food in plastic bags gives the process its name—sous vide means “under vacuum” in French—the water bath method has ensured its reputation. Employed in some of the world’s best restaurants and celebrated in Nathan Myhrvold’s massive tome Modernist Cuisine, sous vide has helped transform the way many chefs work since it first emerged in the 1970s. Along the way, it has become almost synonymous with broader acceptance of scientific cooking. I was surprised, then, to learn that Real Eats isn’t actually cooking its food sous vide—at least not according to the common understanding of the term.

“Sous vide is our method of preserving flavors and extending shelf life. It’s not our cooking technique,” Katy Sparks, Real Eats’ culinary consultant, told me. According to Sparks, the company prepares its meals by conventional methods in its Geneva, New York, kitchen, a facility located close to many of the Finger Lakes farmers from whom it sources products. A meat chili, for example, might be stewed on the stovetop according to largely conventional methods. Once a dish is fully cooked, the company chills it, portions its components into bags, and then sucks the air out of them in a massive vacuum chamber sealer. Essentially, what Real Eats is offering is only sous vide in the strictest, most nominal sense, in that it’s offering food in vacuum-sealed bags. The boil-in-bag process that consumers use to reheat the product may resemble a sous-vide technique, but, in practice, it’s distant from the carefully calibrated approach employed by celebrity chefs such as Keller and Wylie Dufresne.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been taken aback by this revelation: One press release from the company promises “ ‘sous-vide’ style cooking,” while its website simply asserts that its meals have been “Inspired by the classic French sous-vide technique.” This is, Real Eats is saying “like sous vide,” even if it’s not all the way there.

Real Eats’ claim that it’s doing something akin to sous vide is still puzzling, since it would certainly be feasible to embrace the method more fully: Keller writes that he discovered the potential of the technology after a company tapped him to craft “restaurant-style meals that would be cooked sous vide and sold frozen.” He subsequently began to apply those techniques in his own kitchens, radically transforming the way he and his cooks prepared dishes such as duck leg confit. In that sense, sous vide isn’t just a practical way to prepare commercial frozen foods; frozen foods actually helped popularize sous vide itself.

Despite that, sous vide’s associations with chefs like Keller has made it emblematic of high-end cooking as such. In the process, it’s become a signpost of the way high-end equipment—vacuum chambers! immersion circulators!—can make good things better, partly because it’s the rare culinary technology that really engendered new ways of cooking and eating. Its relative distance from the common consumer has ensured that it remains mysterious and slightly compelling. Sous vide sits squarely in the heart of what we might call technology’s canny valley—familiar enough that it’s no longer frightening but still new enough that most of us still aren’t sure what it really is, just that it’s cool.

That may be why Real Eats has zeroed in on the term. At $15 per meal per person, Real Eats’ service is a serious financial commitment, even by the standards of meal delivery startups. (Blue Apron, for example, comes in at about $10 per serving for a two-person kit.) It seems to depend on the very idea of sous vide: Thanks to its associations with both haute cuisine and culinary innovation, the term seems perfectly calibrated to help sell upscale consumers on something they might not otherwise consider. In other words, the mere nod to sous-vide cooking allows Real Eats to shake off literally distasteful associations with frozen dinners.

Whether or not the term is apt for what Real Eats is offering, though, there are advantages to the method it uses. For one, it promises to reduce the excessive, wasteful packaging that accompanies many meal kits, which often come with each component of a dish individually bagged or bottled in difficult-to-reuse containers. (Disclosure: I have read ads for some of those meal delivery services on the Slate podcast Working, which I host. I neither interact with nor select advertisers in that capacity.) Each Real Eats dish, by contrast, comes in just a few small pouches that can, the environmentally conscious company stresses, be rinsed and recycled.

As I ate, though, I temporarily set aside all the technology—real and rhetorical—that had conspired to place the food on my plate. Startup verbiage notwithstanding, Real Eats’ meals—at least those in the kit of three it sent me for review—were quite good, especially relative to the time it took me to get them on the plate. A dish of shrimp on a bed of coconut-infused rice, for example, felt like a thoughtfully composed dish, despite its prepackaged origins. In a just world, that might be enough to sell the service. That Real Eats still focuses on a system it barely employs speaks to the powerful allure of technology, whether or not we need the innovations it heralds.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.