In the restaurant industry, health inspections are an unavoidable part of doing business, though lately the grumbling you hear about the way these things are handled has reached a crescendo — especially in New York City. We thought it would be good to ask NYC chef David Santos to share his own experiences, as well as input from his chef friends in other cities around the country. The good news is, there are places where restaurant inspections are conducted in an intelligent, respectful and no-nonsense way, places where truly dirty restaurants are properly penalized while responsible operators are largely left to carry on with their good work, unburdened by nitpicky regulations and budget-crushing fines. The bad news is, America’s biggest city, the one most densely packed with restaurants, isn’t among them.
This year alone, the NYC Health Department expects to collect some $30 million in fines from its restaurant-inspection program. That’s a big drop from the record $52 million in fines collected in 2012, and you’ll hear plenty of city officials speaking effusively about how last year’s reform bill has lessened the financial impact of this Draconian system on small businesses. Ask the chefs and restaurant owners, however, and they’ll tell you a different story: an ongoing saga of nonsensical infractions and cumbersome penalties.
In NYC, the Health Department’s handling of restaurant inspections has been a contentious issue for years now. I’m not saying the agency doesn’t serve an important purpose, because it does: The last thing any chef wants to do is get someone sick. But the world these bureaucrats live in seems to be more about generating revenue than preventing illness.
All the recent headlines about punishing sushi chefs who don’t wear gloves is only the latest example of how this well-intended public service has been turned into a shakedown of private businesses.
Quickly, on the glove issue: In my professional opinion, a clean pair of hands is always cleaner then a pair of latex gloves and always more tactile and precise. (Last year, the California legislature repealed a similarly silly glove rule in that state.) If you really want to follow the glove rule, and this is the thing that people don’t understand, you would have to change your gloves after every roll, nigiri or salad you make. Bacteria lurks on the surface of things. So as soon as you touch anything, including your knife, a spoon, cutting board or a piece of fish, that glove is contaminated beyond that project. I’ve seen guys pass health inspections with gloves on that were multicolored from wearing them so long. I’ve even pointed it out to an inspector once. I said, “Those gloves he is wearing are cool, but a clean bare hand isn’t?” She responded with “That’s the way it is.”
That, my friends, should tell you everything you need to know about the current restaurant-inspection regime in NYC. It’s not about your health; it’s about lining City Hall’s coffers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve met inspectors who have mistaken chicken for scallops, did not know what foie gras is and couldn’t tell the difference between a couple grains of black rice and vermin droppings.
The whole Health Department fiasco really started here in NYC in July 2010 when a new letter-grade system for restaurants was first implemented. The letter grades were inspired by a similar system already in place in Los Angeles that was supposed to be easier on all parties to understand. The inspection process would be clear to restaurant operators, proponents said, and guests would have an easier time knowing if a place was up to snuff or not. Five years later, things couldn’t be more inconsistent and confusing.
Ever since the letter-grade system was introduced, it’s just one bullshit inspection after another. The rules seem to change so often that you can barely keep up with them, and the inspectors themselves don’t seem to follow the same rules, either. Let’s not even talk about how little they know about food. I mean, one would think that if you’re going to inspect food, you should probably know what it looks like, right? I’ve met inspectors who have mistaken chicken for scallops, did not know what foie gras is and couldn’t tell the difference between a couple grains of black rice and vermin droppings.
Most chefs I know are in favor of health inspections. We just want some consistency regarding what the rules are and how they’re enforced. Classic example: I once asked an inspector to clarify the rules on bandannas. City regulations require cooks to keep their hair up (and out of the food). For this purpose, some of my cooks choose to wear bandannas. I just wanted to make sure they were wearing them properly so we didn’t get fined. There are various ways to tie a bandanna, after all. You can roll it up into a headband, for instance, which is how my cooks usually do it. Or you go for a more traditional triangle shape, like bikers do. I even showed the inspector the difference, just to be clear. She told me the way we were doing it was just fine. But when the next inspector came along, he told me we were doing it all wrong and promptly cited us eight points for hair not being properly covered. When I yelled at him, he said the previous inspector was wrong. I said, “Well, who the fuck is right when you idiots can’t even get your story straight?” He just laughed and went on with his inspection.
On average, a restaurant gets inspected five or six times a year — four if you’re lucky, I guess. Sometimes a disgruntled neighbor or former employee will call the city and say they saw vermin at your place, and then you get those little surprise visits in between.
The process usually breaks down like this: The first inspection almost always results in a B grade or worse. Gone are the days when a restaurant could pass on the first inspection. If an inspector were to give a restaurant an A on the first go, then no fines have to be paid. That’s why you see so many places with those “Grade Pending” signs in the window. When fines average $90 to $100 per point, that first inspection will almost always cost you $1,000 or more. Then, when they come back two weeks later, that’s when you usually pass, unless you get a real ballbuster and they give you a B again. Then that’s fine no. 2 and another $1,000 or more. The other reason they would never pass you on the first go? If they did that, you wouldn’t have to be inspected for 12 months. Well, why would the city throw another grand out the window like that?
In a business like food service, with notoriously tight margins, these mounting fines can be devastating to a restaurant’s bottom line. It’s no wonder that those glaring yellow signs reading “CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE COMMISSIONER OF HEALTH & MENTAL HYGIENE” seem to arrive right before another piece of ominous signage: “FOR RENT.”
Perhaps my most memorable inspection was one of my last at Louro. We were expecting it, too, since we were due and the restaurant was already on high alert. The inspector was some new guy, and that’s always the worst. New inspectors are trying to prove something to their bosses. So he first starts nitpicking at me for some roasted squash that just came out of the oven 15 to 20 minutes prior. He said it was at 142 degrees — two degrees too hot. I told him it just came out of the oven, and I hadn’t had a chance to bring it down to the fridge yet. I have four hours to get it refrigerated safely. He didn’t care. That was the first violation.
Then it was just one thing after another: towel not in the right place, not enough ice in a cooling stock setup, small hole by a pipe that wasn’t sealed properly, and the one that put me over the edge: a water pipe not wrapped properly. “Excuse me?” I said. “What are you talking about?” “This pipe above the dry goods needs to be wrapped,” he explained. By this point, we’d endured 12 inspections over the past three years and until this point, no other inspector had mentioned anything about that pipe. I told him so. He looked at me and suggested the pipe was new. I laughed in his face and said, “Does that look new to you, bro?” That’s just the rules, he said. That three feet of plastic pipe, which was perfectly sealed and working just fine, was an eight-point violation that cost us almost $800.
As I stewed about this the next day, what do you know? We got inspected again! This time, his superior came by to inspect the new inspector’s work! So I had to stop service again and interrupt all my guests and explain to them that we could not proceed until the inspection was over. Inspectors will always say that you can keep going with service, but the minute you touch something, they try to hit you with a violation!
Most chefs I know are in favor of health inspections. We just want some consistency regarding what the rules are and how they’re enforced.
I compare these experiences with those of my industry friends, some of whom are very high-profile and well-respected chefs, from all across the country, and everywhere else, it’s a vastly different story. In the Boston area, restaurants are subject to more of a pass-or-fail system, and my friends there say that if you run a tight ship like any chef who’s worth a damn, then you’re usually left alone. And even if you fail the first time, no fines are given until you fail again. Friends in Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland share similar stories. Most of the inspectors come in and just make sure you’re doing the right things overall. If you’re cooking sous vide, for example, the inspector makes sure you’re using the right system, and that’s about it.
One very interesting tidbit of information I got from my chef friends was this: A lot of them have the same inspector over and over again, which really helps with consistency. Good chefs always preach that the more familiar you are with your station in the kitchen, the better you are at your job. Well, if you get to know your inspector and the inspector gets to know the nooks and crannies of your space, wouldn’t that make everyone’s job easier? Doesn’t that create and perpetuate a better, cleaner environment than having someone tell you one thing one day and another the next?
Don’t tell me we can’t do that in NYC! There are around 42,000 restaurants in this city and about 200 inspectors. That breaks down to roughly one inspector for every 210 restaurants. If each inspector visits three to four restaurants each day, every restaurant could be inspected twice a year. I’d make that trade in a heartbeat for a better, more consistent process anytime. I imagine that many of my fellow chefs would, too. It just seems that all across the country, the system is handled in a much more professional way. Here in NYC, it feels like you’re being set up for failure with every visit, which costs thousands of dollars each time.
Why is everyone else doing it right and New York is doing it so wrong? There has to be a better way.