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NYT: Even the A Students Sometimes Break Health Rules

February 29, 2012
Even the A Students Sometimes Break Health Rules
February 28 2012
FOR Sushi Yasuda,the exalted Midtown shrine to the pristine purity of raw sliced fish, posting anything less than the top grade of A from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would seem like a skull and crossbones in the window.
But every time they pick up a knife, the restaurant’s chefs ignore the health code and risk seven inspection points — halfway to a B grade — bypreparing food the way they believe it must be.
They make sushi bare-handed (washing their hands 40 times during the average dinner service) even though the city requires food handlers to wear gloves at all times.
“Of course we want diners to be protected, and we know the department ofhealth has a monumental challenge,” said Scott Rosenberg, one of the restaurant’s owners. “But the craft of sushi requires a degree of precision and exactitude in making thousands of cuts — microslicing withspeed, and in quantity — and the use of gloves makes that impossible.”
“We can get cited for it,” said Mr. Rosenberg, whose restaurant has an Adespite a July demerit for barehanded slicing, “but we don’t use gloves.”
Even as chefs and operators strive to avoid the stigma of earning less than an A rating, they navigate a gray area, balancing fidelity to theirtraining and culture with adherence to health regulations. Many veterans of the city’s food wars find that the most intractable, agita-provoking problems are not such egregious violations as rodents, insects and filth, but subtler matters like handling food properly, or keeping and serving it at the required temperature.
Their concerns, as well as the department’s, will most likely be raised March 7 at City Council hearings examining how fair and consistent the restaurant inspection process has been since letter grades were adopted ayear and a half ago. Food temperature alone has emerged as a major source of violations cited by the health department, whose officials sayundercooked or under-refrigerated food is a serious issue in a city where dining out was linked to 3,500 hospitalizations in 2008 for food-borne illnesses and some 1,300 cases of salmonella.
Although 77 percent of the city’s 24,000 restaurants have received A’s, about 33 percent have been cited in their most recent inspections for violations involving foods kept too hot or cold, according to an analysis of city records by The New York Times. This is many more than have been tagged for violations like evidence of mice. Many chefs say the regulations leave too little room for time-tested practices that create delicious food.
William Knapp, chef and owner of the tiny French bistro Table d’Hote on the Upper East Side, knows how to serve his country-style terrine and how the health department wants it.
“It should be soft and delicious, but serving it ice cold, that’s just not a satisfying experience for our customers,” he said. “But the department says that’s how it has to be done.” The restaurant has an A, with 9 points, but a 7-point temperature violation would have resulted in a B, 14 to 27 points, “and some customers might think twice before dining in a B restaurant,” Mr. Knapp said. But his customers also know French cuisine.
When one of his waiters recently brought Monique Schweich and her friends the frigid $15 terrine of pork, veal and chicken, she was appalled.
“This is too cold, it has no flavor, it needs to be at room temperature,and every terrine I ever had in France was at room temperature,” Ms. Schweich said she told the waiter. He informed her that by law it had tobe no warmer than 41 degrees — cold as ice water.
Ms. Schweich sighed, saying, “How can the city say it has the best restaurants in the world when so much is forbidden?”
Andrew Carmellini’s SoHo restaurant the Dutchhas an A, and he cooks chicken the way he thinks is right, though the city specifies an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
“The formal temperatures are too high and make for a dry product,” Mr. Carmellini said. “You get a piece of cardboard that way. For chicken andpork, 165 degrees is too much, and I would prefer to cook it at a lowertemperature for a longer time.”
And so he does, legally, when customers specify that it not be well done, and he has not received any 10-point violations for doing so. “Butnot every inspector is aware of the regulations,” he said.
Daniel Kass, a deputy health commissioner, said that the department’s regulations are based on “independent analysis regarding the state of the science, federal guidance and state rules, and then a determination is made about what is safe.”
Mr. Kass said the health department adhered to the New York State sanitary code, which specifies 165 degrees for poultry and pork, but “does not prevent a restaurant from serving undercooked meat to patrons who request it.”
He added: “When the department’s review of the science shows that lower temperatures are safe, it works with the state to try to change the rules.”
The department, Mr. Kass said, has demonstrated that it is not unbendingto restaurateurs’ complaints. He noted that the department’s board relaxed many rules in December, including the much-hated requirement that city bartenders and baristas wear hairnets, and eased requirements for a separate kitchen sink for washing food since it required the “costly and burdensome” installation of new sinks.
Concerns like the use of gloves by sushi chefs are “very specialized issues that are not important sources for violations around the city,” Mr. Kass said, in comparison to major contamination and infestation infractions. As for precision sushi slicing, he added, “keep in mind that surgeons operate wearing gloves to perform intricate procedures.”
Still, a star chef asked not to be identified when he nervously admittedthat he regularly risked 7-point citations by bringing his steak and poultry to room temperature before they go into the pan, because “very cold meat takes longer to cook — in fact, the outside part gets overcooked — and it just cooks better if it isn’t as cold.”
Mr. Kass said that the department wants to be flexible and that it meetswith an advisory committee of restaurateurs, city officials and scientists four times a year. In December, the department’s board exempted takeout food from stringent temperature monitoring. And after years of complaints by Chinese restaurateurs, the department decided last year to let them hang roasted ducks in their storefronts for as long as four hours, maintaining a centuries-old custom of displaying their succulent wares.
Korean restaurants have been cited for years for fermenting kimchi, longa hallmark of their cuisine, for hours, and sometimes days, at room temperature. Restaurateurs say the acidity keeps it safe, but inspectorshave cited them for keeping it at over 70 degrees, the upper threshold for food monitored as it is warmed from refrigeration.
Because of complaints, the health department now says that kimchi can bekept at room temperature as long as the restaurant measures the pH level at below 4.6 — or its temperature can be monitored in a logbook for up to six hours, before being thrown out.
But even more widely familiar foods can cause concern.
Keeping ice creamabove 41 degrees is a 7-point violation, for instance. “Anyone knows you have to let it temper out of the freezer, to open it so it becomes malleable,” said Buzzy O’Keeffe, owner of the A-rated River Café.“But they prefer we sell a frozen hockey puck. They want you to have a thermometer taking temperatures from the time you take something out of the freezer until it goes in the diner’s mouth.” He said his kitchen obeys the rules.
A seemingly innocuous menu stalwart, cheese, has drawn the greatest attention to the temperature rules. In November, Sardi’ssequestered its communal cheese crocks after an inspector questioned its decades-old custom of setting them out on its bars. A consultant told the owners that the city would require employees to check the pots every two hours with a thermometer to make sure they didn’t exceed 70 degrees, while meticulously signing a Cheddar-temperature log, then throwing out the cheese no more than six hours after it had last been refrigerated.
Mr. Kass said there are “no refrigeration requirements for hard cheeses,” because “their water content is not conducive to bacterial growth.” But, as with terrines, soft cheeses can be kept at room temperature only if their temperature is monitored and charted.
“Cheese should be at close to room temperature,” Mr. Carmellini said. “AVacherin has to be oozy. So does Époisses: it has to be runny.”
He added, “If you go by the rules, you can’t serve it the way customers want it.” He hasn’t received a violation for cheese temperature, but “the whole process is kind of random, the way inspectors give you points.”
To Mr. Kass, “taste and safety are not incompatible,” he said, adding that the department “allows some flexibility where we think it appropriate for consumers who want to take more risk,” as with rare meatand raw eggs requested by customers.
But in the new era of the big blue A in the window, a single violation can be a high-stakes gamble.
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