New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has an image problem: Among chefs and restaurateurs, the prevailing wisdom is that the DOH is a bully, arbitrarily and inconsistently enforcing arcane rules while targeting high-profile restaurants. When Thomas Keller posted the results of his efforts to overturn a poor health inspection at Per Se, the point-by-point document, which exonerated the restaurant of many violations, was viewed by many as an indictment of the entire process and a direct look at how subjective the inspections can be. But can anything be done to help both restaurants and diners feel like the Department is doing more to be of use to them? At last night's Edible Schoolyard NYC's Spring Benefit, that's exactly the question we posed to the numerous chefs in attendance.
What do you think can be done to improve the current system to be more helpful for both restaurants and diners?
Nick Anderer, Maialino: I think the way they can improve the system is by more communication with restaurants in general about new compliancy codes that they have, because there are so many things that happen during the inspection that you're like, Wow, I didn't even realize that was a violation. That's the No. 1 thing. The other thing that always gets me is the whole scale of restaurants, where somebody can get 10 points in a restaurant that's the size of a football field, and then, you know, you go inspect a place like a falafel shop. They could have 12 points, but 12 points in a place that small should be way worse than 12 points in a place that's the size of a football field. They should scale the points to the size of the kitchen, I think. That would be a more fair system.
Matt Danzer, Uncle Boons: It's so subjective. It depends on the inspector you get. We had them come in at 9:45 on a Friday night, so service just completely stopped. Thank God we got the A at that point, so it was an easy good service, but it's always challenging to do that during a busy service. It's just the nature of the beast. You just have to stay on top of everything and make sure you hit all the marks.
Anita Lo, Annisa: I think it needs a complete overhaul. I think the whole training needs to have an overhaul. I think laws should only be able to be changed, I don't know, every three years or something. It's random, you can't even keep up. It should be something that's sent out to all of us, a black-and-white thing. The way they inspect really depends on the inspector. It changes from person to person. Some inspectors care about one thing; some inspectors care about another thing. It has to be consistent. It should be a series of checklists and it should be transparent what they're looking for because we want to do a good job, too. Can I tell you one more story? [Grub: Of course!] We were reapplying, cause you have to renew your license. So I sent in a check, it had my social security number, it had my home address, it had my date of birth, it had everything. All the forms came back without all that stuff. It was apparently lost. We called the Department of Health and they were like, No, no, it's not here. We just thought it had gotten lost in the system, so I was like, Well, fuck. I had to change all of my bank accounts, which [took] a lot of time and money. They said, No, it's definitely not here. After I go through all of that, which is a lot for a business ... This was many years ago, so I don't remember all the details, but they came back a couple of months later and said, No, we found it, it's here. Every year it gets harder and harder for small businesses to do business in this city. It makes you want to give up, you know. There's a reason that there are so many big corporations in New York City right now.
Justin Smillie, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria: Ultimately, it really should just be a partnership, where we wanna serve safe food, they want to help us serve safe food ... Once we were willing and able and open to communicating with the Health Department, we haven't had any problems. I think it's when you try to do things under the radar and you're not transparent, they get a little bothered. There could be more clarity on their website. I don't know how much more information they can provide. What you get dinged for sometimes is not always unsafe food. It could be something as simple as a side towel—
Joel Hough, Il Buco: —Or sliced citrus not covered on the bar, which you see everywhere you go. They can nail you for that, and then that could be the difference between an A and a B. And some people are like, Should I eat at B restaurants? What does that mean? So it's misleading, I think, a little bit.
Fredrik Berselius, Aska: They just need to have educated personnel. When I took my health-certificate test, my teacher did not even eat in a restaurant since 15 years back. Every restaurant I've worked in, we've tried to keep the highest standard in cleanliness that we can. And that should be everybody's goal, but even then, there might be cases of you ending up with not the best grade ... The bottom line is to keep customers safe and serve food that is up to a sanitary standard. I feel like that's not always why the Health Department shows up in a restaurant. I feel like it's not just to keep guests safe ... There's so many points on that scoring system. If you have a restaurant with 100 staff, it's tricky. I've seen restaurants where I wouldn't go eat at all, and they have the same grade as some Michelin-star restaurant that's been shut down. Something's not right with the system. I don't know if it's too big or they're understaffed. I just think it needs to be changed altogether. They already changed the system a few years back, five years ago or so, and I think they might have to revisit their program again.
Gavin Kaysen, Café Boulud: I've always been in the mentality that they're supposed to help us. We're there to learn from them and vice versa. I feel like that's the most important thing. If they come into my kitchen at Café, which they probably have 25 to 30 times, I need to be able to figure out if we're doing something wrong. Educate me. And teach me how to do it correctly and what does that mean. Honestly, I think that's the hardest part for the chefs, because we're caught up with the latest trends and we read about all these things, but do we fail in not reading about all the other stuff that's happening with the Health Department as much? Maybe there's a different way for it to be voiced to us so we pick up on it ... It's hard, it's a hard battle. If it's 9 o'clock Saturday night and you have 300 covers on the books and you're pumping out people and all of a sudden they walk in, it kind of shuts down your whole world. Not to say you're doing anything different, but it changes our dynamic. It's like walking in the middle of a football match when they're about to throw a touchdown and you're like, Wait, hold on a second, I'm just going to walk in front of the quarterback real quick. You can't do that. But I understand, they have their job to do and they have to protect people and I get it, and we're there to please people too, so let's figure it out together ... A lot of [the system] is older and needs to be updated. A lot of things are sectioned and grouped together. I don't know all the groups. I'm not educated enough to know what all the groups are, there's so many ... We just want to learn what it is if we're doing something wrong ... We all take the test to get the little card, maybe it should be like a driver's license and you have to go back every couple of years to renew it.
Danny Bowien, Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina: I learned a lot through the process. We're still not open [at Mission Chinese Food]. I think that there have been a lot of articles coming out that are very controversial in regards to the Health Department. I've learned nothing but good things dealing with them. I think that if, God forbid, a restaurant gets closed, our mistake was that we rushed to reopen really quickly because we just panicked instead of actually going there and talking to them and working with the Health Department. Especially in New York, it's probably the strictest. It's really difficult to get an A, and they're gonna come after you. If you're on their radar, then you're definitely on their radar. But I don't know, I think we were 100 percent at fault and we learned a lot. I think there's a lot for chefs to learn. There are certain things about certain restaurants that get written about, but there's a lot to learn ... We technically could be open now, but that space we were in is very difficult to bring up to code, so we're not going to reopen there ... As far as advice, if anything happens with the Health Department, just work with them. Because the worst thing in the world is if you piss them off.