It’s Friday afternoon. The restaurant tonight is full to brimming. Both the starter section and garnish sections are chasing to catch up with mise en place and the pastry section is still trying to recover from the beating they have just received from afternoon tea. The kitchen clock appears to be on fast forward and hours are lasting minutes - this is going to be a push to get ready for tonight! With our first guests arriving in the lounge in just over an hours’ time, ready for warm canapés, we are really up against it.
It’s at this time Richard Ebbs from Nisbets pops into the kitchen with a large box.”I've got something for you to try out, see what you think".
As with any industry, within catering there are always lots of innovative “next big things” popping out of the woodwork which are generally marketed towards making every chef believe they simply cant live without them. I’m frequently being handed things to trial and to put through the mill. From knives and scales, sous vide machines and water baths to new marinades, spices, herbs and foods. I have to say, although I will of course dip my toe into the water and see what its like, often I will dismiss certain things on the very reason of being too gimmicky.
My personal opinion is there is a place for all types of cooking methods, techniques and new ideas- but just don’t let it run away with you. Don’t forget all the other important methods and techniques you have acquired over the years as a chef. A classic for me is sous vide. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s brilliant. It’s consistent. It treats food with the utmost care and precision and if used correctly offers the diner a finished product which 20 years ago would not have been obtainable.
However, please don’t use it on every dish on the menu. Don’t forget the value or irreplaceable importance in traditional methods such as pan frying, braising, poaching and grilling. All cooking methods offer a completely unique reaction with the food and deliver incredibly different results. They should all be used, explored and treated with respect.
Back to the box. Today the box has a new object inside which, to be fair, I have wanted to try out for quite a while. Rich was right. I do like it. It’s one of the newer designed Buffalo dehydrators from Nisbets. As I lift it out of the box, I'm grateful it’s not cling film or some other consumable - it's something I do really want to try using.
The main difference between this one and other dehydrators I have seen before is the door at the front. In the past you would have to stack the shelves on top of each other, which not only provides inconsistent cooking, but also is a complete pain when the one you want to use first is at the very bottom! With my mind still very much focussed on that night, I put the new box into my office ready for after service to start playing with once we have gotten through the day.
As I set up for dinner I find myself thinking far too much about just what I am going to try drying out in it first. Fruit, veg, herbs, maybe some garlic, maybe some black garlic, some edible flowers from the garden, will this be what makes me love jerky? Who knows - the world is my oyster!
So, later that night I get to work on the new dehydrator. And I have to say again, I like it. As with anything you use or do, the key has to be consistency. Can you repeatedly produce the same thing to the same standard, always? This dehydrator is by far the most consistent I have ever used, even with the door open, it still appears to deliver the same results time and time again.
Of course there are positives and negatives. Things that work well and things that work not so well. I find over the next couple of days some great results in using the machine for your standard apple crisps, dried mango slices and Beetroot crisps. Beautiful. Even more extravagant things like proving bread and making yoghurt inside the machine delivers good results.
There are some foods that just don’t dehydrate well and it’s important to know why. Anything very fatty will not be good as it draws all the moisture from the food, meaning anything with a high fat content will simply turn into a not very nice, grisly, lump of in edibleness. Black garlic didn’t go well either!
There are also some little tricks I discovered. For example, I found not dry out sweet and savoury at the same time. As there's no barrier between the foods, smells and flavours can transfer between food items, giving you an altogether different unwanted flavour on certain things.
Also, as with anything, half of good cooking is in the shopping. Only use the best foods you can to dry out. Having a dehydrator is not an opportunity to use up those old peaches that have turned bad and don't try ignoring any moulds that are starting to creep into the foods to get another day out of them. The quality of the food you put in directly impacts the food you get out.
However, dehydrating is really so easy. It’s very difficult to over-dehydrate something. As you are working with temperatures between 35°C and 68°C, it’s really hard to mess up. Even if you do, it can still lead into something quite brilliant. A commis chef left some wedges of fresh tomato in the dehydrator for a little too long. We were looking at slightly drying them out to intensify the flavour, with a view to using them as a garnish for a goats cheese mousse, however when we said dry out for 2 hours, he heard “dry out for 2 days" - the result? The hardest, driest little tomato wedge shaped bullets you can imagine.
So what did we do? Rehydrate them! Put them into a vac pac bag covered in some extra virgin olive oil and a week later we had the most amazing tomato oil to use in salads, dressings and marinades. “From falling acorns, great oak trees will grow” as the saying goes.
So I’m convinced. This dehydrator will have a place in my kitchen and will deliver products which are consistent, evenly dried out and reliably produced. The cost nowadays isn’t too bad and I do think they have a place in the modern kitchen for sure. Not on every single dish, but definitely somewhere in the repoirture.
Mark Veale, Head Chef at Thornbury Castle Hotel