The Post ran a front-page "EXCLUSIVE" yesterday that does a spectacular job of perpetuating misconceptions about what happens when the Health Department shows up at a restaurant’s front door: The paper quotes a Lupa manager and Babbo hostess who claim that the restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich have installed a "hidden alarm that alerts kitchen workers that an inspector has arrived so they can quickly trash any meals they’re cooking and scram." Could this really be true? Maybe someone really does have it in for the chef in the orange Crocs.
Much like a bank teller can trigger a silent alarm the moment a stickup kid approaches the counter, the unidentified restaurant workers allege the alarm system is a push button affair newly installed in the group’s nine restaurants, presumably located near the front door of each, perhaps behind the hostess stand. The warning "gives staff a chance to toss out what’s on the stove or in the oven and go on break before the inspector enters." This, we’re told, is designed to minimize fees that stem from inspection violations that "often involve dishes being held at improper temperatures," and the whole system is allegedly untested. “You’re supposed to keep pressing that button,” an employee tells the Post. Bastianich, of course, tells the paper his restaurants have no such system in place, and technically, food in ovens or cooking "on the stove" technically isn’t being "held," because it’s still being cooked.
Of course, the back-of-house at pretty much every restaurant immediately shifts into high gear the moment an inspector enters the premises, and this is nothing new. One of the most recognized chefs in the country trains his cooks to adhere to a two-minute drill for very purpose, and many more restaurant servers still use the early warning system of ringing in fake table numbers to tip the kitchen off to the presence of DOH brass. A push button system, if it exists, may be new, but there’s nothing particularly novel or particularly stealthy about a restaurant’s staff making a little extra noise when the health department comes through.