A Celebrated Sushi Chef Is Taking a Stand Against the Health Department

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Inside Sushi Dojo in the East Village.
Inside Sushi Dojo in the East Village. Photo: Courtesy of Sushi Dojo

Last week, New York City’s Department of Health closed the popular, acclaimed East Village restaurant Sushi Dojo. The reasons, according to the official report and a statement provided by the DOH, were “a combination of bare hand contact and food out of temperature.” The following day, the restaurant’s Gansevoort Market offshoot, Sushi Dojo Express, was also closed. Somewhat surprisingly, in a statement provided to Eater, Dojo chef David Bouhadana — whose third restaurant, Dojo Izakaya, is still open — wrote that he was closed because of “BS rule, a rule I don’t stand by. Sushi is being ruined [by] gloves, freezing fish and more issues.”

That New York City chefs sometimes have contentious relationships with the DOH is no secret, but Bouhadana, for one, feels that the rules are particularly out of step with the culture and practices of high-end sushi. Grub called the chef to talk about what exactly happened, what he’s going to do about it, and why he feels he’s being targeted.

So, what happened?
The Department of Health, let’s put it this way, the DOH has their rules and their laws, and it is what it is. For sushi, there’s always been a gray area as far as fish, rice, temperatures — everything, really. The rule that applies to me and applies to Taco Bell is no bare-hand contact with raw food.

In sushi, we’re taught to be clean, hygienic, and professional. If you are a clean chef, you don’t need gloves. When a health inspector walks in, we all have our code word, we all have our drill: Put the gloves on, smile to the inspector, they walk in, they walk out. You’re good for six months. The problem is my restaurant is designed so when you first walk in you see me, and through the windows you can see me. But this wasn’t an issue before. Sushi Yasuda has open windows. Sushi Nakazawa has open windows. Every sushi bar has open windows.

When did it become an issue then?
The tipping point came when the inspector told me to throw food away in front of my customers. When an inspector walks into a restaurant, like Eleven Madison Park or wherever, they’re in the kitchen. Nobody knows they’re there. When you walk into my restaurant, I am positioned front and the center.

So what happened was, I believe what I believe and I’m a vocal about it, and because of that I have been singled out, and I have been made a target. Anyone would tell you don’t fight with the DOH. Every inspection, every couple of months, whatever it was, it was same violation, same violation, same violation. And, again, I tried to explain to them, but they don’t care. They don’t want to listen to me. They even ask me, “Why are you doing this?” So then they started hitting us harder. Getting me for other things, and then they dropped me down to a C grade. And they expect me to post it four feet from my front door. I refuse to do that.

Here I am, refusing to — I don’t want to use that word, but, yeah, in their eyes I was refusing to wear gloves and now hiding my grade. The grade is a whole political thing, your lawyer goes there, you pay your fine, I don’t want to belabor too much on it.

Now what’s happening is, they were coming by every week or two, walking in, asking, “Where is your grade?” How am I supposed to run a legit business charging $100 per person with a C grade? It’s absurd. But because I’ve been vocal and I have been — other people don’t know what I’m saying or don’t believe, or maybe I’m wrong for doing it. Each inspector knows who I am, they have a profile about me, and they want David to wear gloves or they’re going to close his restaurant. And that’s what happened after six or seven times of paying the violation. I’ve paid the DOH $6,000 in fines over the last few months.

Can you walk us through the night you got shut down?
The last one came in at 8:45 on Thursday, and was like, “We’re closing you right now.” Granted, she came inside, then relaxed and did her inspection. I passed my inspection; I got 18 points, which is very common. [According to the DOH’s website, the restaurant received 21 points during the inspection.] But she said, “I’m closing you because you weren’t wearing gloves.” I was told it was gloves, and gloves only, as far as the [Sushi Dojo Express]. I wasn’t there. But the violations racked up, and all three of my restaurants got inspected the day after each other.

That’s what it came down to. This is not a disgusting restaurant. There’s no feces, there’s no vomit, there’s no bacteria, there’s no sign of any kind of health-hazardous anything. This is a personal issue. I’ve been talking to a lot of sushi chefs for years now, and right now it’s a huge moment, and of course everyone is behind me, but no one really wants me to use their name or get involved in controversy. But, well, what do we do?

What comes next?
I could yell and scream, I could protest, but the DOH doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter what interview I do. I talked to my sensei, I talked to my masters, and the goal is to sit down with the DOH and find a solution together and amend the bare-hand-contact rule. When you go eat oysters, it says at the bottom of the menu that consuming raw oysters is a risk. I want the same thing when you walk into my restaurant. Sign a waiver. At the bottom of the menu, it says the chefs are bare-handed, consuming this could be hazardous to your health.

Clearly you feel, like a lot of other chefs do, that there is a disconnect between cooks and the DOH.
I’ll tell the inspectors, “Look at me, I’m wearing all white. I have 17 people at the counter and 17 people behind them. You think if for a second there is any chance of anything disgusting that they would sit here and eat my food?” They don’t care, they just repeat, “The. Rule. Is. No. Contact.” It’s frustrating. Of course you’re going to react. We have pickled Japanese ginger, and it’s the same thing: One inspector is like, “Why is that out?” It’s pickled ginger. “No, put it in the fridge.” Another inspector walks in and is like, “Oh, that’s fine.” One knows, one doesn’t know.

There’s a whole group of them who are like, “Oh, we got him.” It’s a little personal, I can’t prove this, and I don’t want to make accusations, but how does this happen? If you go to a dive bar and it looks terrible but it has an A grade, why? It’s just such an irony that I have to stress about the health inspector walking in every single day and we have to do drills, guard the door, and black out the windows. But I have to act all happy and nonconcerned to the customers. Then when I hear the code word, my face turns red, the music stops, and there’s some lady behind me poking my fish with a thermometer.

So how do you fix this?
I think the solution is to have different categories, but at the same time I would say no to that because it’s going to take longer for that to even get started. So I want to focus on this one topic, which is gloves and bare-hand contact and educating the DOH. I want to figure out a way in as short a time as possible to open, but if I open I have to comply and wear gloves. So I still don’t change anything.

What are you going to do then?
Well, I’m going through the process of reopening now, which is another fiasco. You have to go downtown, get papers signed, register with the clerk — basically, you have to admit you’re wrong and say you’ll comply. If I do reopen this week, I’m sure they’ll walk in several times before the end of the month to make sure David is wearing his gloves. That’s if I am granted my license back. I guess the scenario would be if we reopen, if we get our license back, then everyone has to wear gloves.

How do you even start trying to get the DOH to think about changing this rule?
I don’t know the next step in terms of how to amend the rule or educate the DOH. If I do prevail and get something going and there is a petition, I bet you every chef in New York will sign it. But people don’t want to be the first person to sign it. I just need to know the next step, not just to reopen my restaurant but to reopen and get rid of this and save so many sushi chefs the hugest burden ever.

Meanwhile, when Grub reached out to the DOH to ask about the situation, a representative provided the following statement:

Sushi Dojo was temporarily closed as a public health risk for a combination of bare hand contact and food out of temperature. Hand contact with ready to eat food can contribute to the transmission of foodborne illness. Contaminated hands are a significant factor in the transmission of enteric virus, Norovirus, Hepatitis A in foodborne disease outbreaks. Gloves or a barrier are required by the FDA, New York State and New York City Health Departments.

Sushi Dojo was temporarily closed as a public health risk for a combination of bare hand contact and food out of temperature. They had been inspected seven (7) times since they opened and were cited six (6) times for bare hand contact. Each of these violations were admitted in a hearing in OATH. Sushi Dojo and Sushi Dojo Express were issued a letter informing them that they needed to comply with the New York City Health Code and that if they continued to have bare hand contact, which is an uncorrected public health hazard, they were subject to permit revocation. The letter was sent on September 23 and again on October 7, 2015. On a re-inspection that took place on October 21, 2015 the Health Department observed bare hand contact as well as food out of temperature and we closed the establishment due to the fact that they had an existing uncorrected public health hazard.
A Celebrated Sushi Chef’s Fight Against the DOH